This review was written for the theatrical screening of "Awake." 

NEW YORK -- Sometimes in their urgency to prevent critics from seeing their dreck, film companies throw out the baby with the bathwater. Such is the case with this nifty little thriller that opened Friday without being screened in advance for the press.

Playing something like an extended episode of Rod Serling's classic "Night Gallery" television series, the film uses as its main element the horrifying condition known as "anesthetic awareness," in which a patient under surgery, though completely paralyzed, is aware of everything that he is experiencing, including the pain. Were it to gain wider exposure, this film would do for operations what "Jaws" did for the beach.

The central character is Clayton Beresford Jr. (Hayden Christensen), a rich, young Wall Street tycoon suffering from an inferiority complex and a bad heart. While trying to fill his late father's shoes in the business world, he also is waiting for a suitable donor heart for a desperately needed transplant.

Said operation is to be performed by his best friend Jack (Terrence Howard), a heart surgeon who previously saved Clayton's life. His domineering mother, Lilith (Lena Olin), opposes the choice, preferring the services of a longtime friend (Arliss Howard) who also happens to be pre-eminent in the field.

Further complicating matters is Clayton's secret romance with his mother's assistant, Samantha (Jessica Alba), resulting in a quickie marriage just before he is notified that a heart has become available.

Just as he's about go under the knife, Clayton realizes, to his horror, that he can still feel everything. During the ensuing operation -- depicted in graphic detail -- he learns that things are not quite what they seem.

Director Joby Harold's script has more than its share of credibility problems, not the least of which is its depiction of a major operation occurring in what seems to be a deserted hospital. But he also succeeds in creating a quietly ominous tone that never lets up, with this being the rare modern horror effort that relies on suspense rather than bloodshed.

Other pluses are the handsome widescreen photography by Russell Carpenter, who makes fine use of numerous New York locations, and the sterling cast.

Christensen delivers a low-key performance that is ultimately quite appealing, and he's well matched by the beautiful Alba. Olin brings unexpected depths to what could have been a stock role, and Terrence Howard uses his easy ability to project innate decency to excellent effect. And veteran character actors Christopher McDonald, Fisher Stevens and Arliss Howard deliver highly effective supporting turns.

Although admittedly marred by plot holes deep enough for a truck to fall into, "Awake" didn't deserve the big sleep.

A Weinstein Co., Deutsch/Open City and Greenstreet Films production
Director-screenwriter: Joby Harold
Producers: Joana Vicente, Jason Kliot, John Penotti, Fisher Stevens
Executive producer: Donny Deutsch
Director of photography: Russell Carpenter
Production designer: Dina Goldman
Co-producers: Amy Kaufman, Tory Tunnell
Costume designer: Cynthia Flynt
Editor: Craig McKay
Clayton Beresford Jr.: Hayden Christensen
Samantha Lockwood: Jessica Alba
Lilith Bereford: Lena Olin
Jack Harper: Terrence Howard
Larry Lupin: Christopher McDonald
Dr. Putnam: Fisher Stevens
Nurse Carver: Georgina Chapman
Clayton Beresford Sr.: Sam Robards
Dr. Neyer: Arliss Howard
Running time -- 84 minutes
MPAA rating: R