imaginary friend

Z

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An 8-year-old boy gets an imaginary friend. What begins as a simple childhood fantasy quickly turns sinister. The boy is acting out and blaming his imaginary friend. As the family’s life is turned upside down as they are terrorized by this invisible force, they will have to turn to the past in order to survive the present.

Z is the sophomore feature film of director Brandon Christensen (Still/Born), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, What Keeps You Alive). Christensen and Minihan’s combined efforts manage to bring viewers a bit of the familiar along with some thrilling new bits. These days, horror films about imaginary friends seem to be increasingly common. The filmmakers take a bit of time introducing this imaginary friend, allowing time to establish the family unit and their dynamics first. When we do finally meet Z, the imaginary friend, it is just whispers and mentions of him as the son plays. Yet it doesn’t take very long for those whispers to turn to behavior issues and then full-blown terror. This gradual increase in suspense allows for some brilliant and terrifying scenes that are sure to haunt viewers. Z even takes the time to tackle many issues including the horrors of parenting, emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and suicide (take this also as a trigger warning for anyone who has difficulty watching these topics on screen). For the most part these aspects of the film are very well done, but certain parts feel a little derivative of other films, especially the climax. Z ends with a fair amount of closure, but the filmmakers wisely left some questions in the dark. I could definitely imagine a sequel to Z in the future.

One of the things about Z that surprised me was how it almost feels like two films. The first half of the film is very much a story of a mother and the love she feels for her son. When she first learns of her son’s behavioral problems, and feels the consequences of this in their social circle, she is completely in denial. Every mother wants to believe the best of their child, and it’s more difficult to see the truth with those blinders on. When the mother finally realizes the real danger, she has to battle a sinister imaginary friend, her disbelieving husband, and even her own son in order to try and save those she loves. At one point there is a scene I believed to be the end of Z, but to my surprise the film continues for another 20 minutes. This second section of the film feels much more like watching an abusive, controlling relationship. It is truly disturbing to see the woman’s life upended and left to the mercy of a male figure. Every moment of every day of her life is controlled by this entity, forcing her to distance herself from the outside world for fear its jealousy will lead to their harm. This is very powerful and disturbing in how it’s conveyed, but at the same time it makes the film feel a bit disjointed. The two halves work very well on their own, but I don’t know if they necessarily work together.

Every performance in Z is truly stunning. Keegan Connor Tracy (The Magicians, Final Destination 2) plays Elizabeth. While Tracy is fantastic through the entire film, she truly shines in the last half of the film. Elizabeth goes from questioning her own sanity to being willing to do anything it takes to save her son. Tracy absolutely shines in this role and brings heart-wrenching emotion to the horror of what’s happening. Jett Klyne (The Boy, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) plays Elizabeth’s son, Joshua. The way Klyne shows Joshua’s gradual transformation from normal, sweet boy to a very disturbed child is a performance I won’t soon forget. While these two actors carry most of the film, Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters) is great as husband and father, Kevin, while Luke Moore (Sex, Lies & Murder) frightens viewers as Z himself.

The filmmakers behind Z were very wise with their scares. Much of the terror is from the building of tension, including some long, drawn out images where you are at the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen. Yet that tension is punctuated with some perfectly crafted jump scares. These are definitely earned jump scares that will still have an impact, if not necessarily the scare, upon subsequent viewings. Most of the bigger scares rely heavily on great camerawork, making sure your eye is drawn to the right place at the right time. But, of course, many of the scares wouldn’t be complete without Z. The single greatest thing the filmmakers did was barely show Z. Viewers will get starling glimpses here and there, giving enough of an impression of his frightening appearance, but for the most part he is invisible and left to the shadows. So many horror films show too much of their evil entities, but by leaving the imaginary friend mostly unseen the viewers are able to project some of there imagination onto the character. Z is also created with a combination of motion actor and CGI, which wouldn’t be quite as effective in full view.

Z brings a menacing imaginary friend to life in a way that tackles dramatic issues while also delivering scares. Christensen and Minihan definitely created a ghoulish tale to haunt horror fans, but they also managed to embed compelling takes on motherhood and trauma. boasts strong performances, especially from Tracy and Klyne, and has what is probably the most terrifying imaginary friend I’ve ever seen. While there is a clear divide that seems to split the film into two disjointed parts, both parts are fascinating in how they deal with certain topics. Despite the flaws in the overall story arc, there are definitive moments that are guaranteed to be embedded in your mind long after watching.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Daniel Isn’t Real

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As a child, Luke had an imaginary friend named Daniel. After a troubling incident, he locked Daniel away and moved on with his life. Now a freshman in college, Luke returns home to visit his mentally unstable mother. In rehashing past trauma, Luke releases his old friend to help him cope with his reality.

From the producers of Mandy comes an all-new film to blow audiences’ minds. Daniel Isn’t Real is based on the novel by Brian DeLeeuw titled This Way I Was Saved. DeLeeuw (Curvature, Some Kind of Hate) co-wrote the film with director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Holidays, Some Kind of Hate). This duo creates cinematic magic in this film and delivers a compelling story unlike anything I have seen before. The film introduces us to Luke when he is a child and dealing with his parents going through what is clearly a tumultuous divorce. It is during this time that Daniel makes his first appearance. Imaginary friends are a fairly common coping mechanism for children going through trauma, so his mother allows this fantasy to continue until that fantasy becomes dangerous. Then Daniel comes back into Luke’s life during another time of trauma. Daniel is a very alluring and charming person who is able to help Luke get through hard times, tap into his artistic abilities, and become more confident with women. But, as with most things, all of this is too good to be true and Luke’s life spirals out of control all thanks to Daniel. DeLeeuw and Mortimer clearly create a fantastic mythos for Daniel and relate it to real-world issues. It’s also a mythos that keeps the audience guessing as to whether Daniel is a figment of Luke’s imagination, a side effect of a mental health issue, or something far more sinister.

There are so many layers to the plot of Daniel Isn’t Real. The top layer primarily deals with mental health. Luke’s mother has schizophrenia that is clearly not being taken care of by a healthcare professional. Naturally, when Luke’s life starts to get out of hand he thinks he is like his mother. Not only is it sad to watch his mother lose her handle on reality, but it’s equally unsettling to see how much it alters Luke’s life both when he was a child and as an adult. With schizophrenia potentially being hereditary, it’s heartbreaking to see Luke question his own sanity and fear that he is becoming like his mother, despite his love for her. It’s really powerful to watch and creates a stunning yet depressing commentary on mental illnesses and how they affect more than just the afflicted.

Another layer to the plot of Daniel Isn’t Real is the allure of power and control. Daniel is able to improve Luke’s life in virtually every aspect at first. His mother finally goes into the treatment she needs, he gets into photography, and he finally is connecting with other people. The effect Daniel has is intoxicating to Luke, but it also means he lets his guard down around his newfound friend. Daniel ends up taking over his entire life. There is even a psychosexual element as Daniel’s power over Luke extends to the bedroom, yet Daniel appears to almost be jealous of these interactions. It’s a bizarre dichotomy that makes you wonder who is truly in control at any given moment. Yet, despite that battle for control, the two are very much dependent on each other as well.

Daniel Isn’t Real contains many truly phenomenal performances. Miles Robbins (Blockers, Halloween) stars as Luke. Up until this film I had only really seen comedic performances from Robbins. His portrayal of Luke absolutely blew me away. Robbins shows such emotional depth in this role and conveys Luke’s unraveling mental state perfectly. It’s the kind of performance that stays with you long after the film ends. Patrick Schwarzenegger (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Grown Ups 2) stars opposite Robbins as Daniel. At first Schwarzenegger’s performance is quite subtle. He’s charming, helpful, sleek, and sexy. Then as the cracks in Daniel’s facade grow and his true nature shows, Schwarzenegger is able to really let his acting ability shine. He makes the character ominous and dangerous and pure evil in the best way possible. Both Robbins and Schwarzenegger also play off of each other very well. Other delightful performances can be found in Sasha Lane (Hellyboy) as Cassie, Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes) as Claire, and Chukwudi Iwuji (John Wick: Chapter 2) as Braun.

There are many gorgeous artistic elements throughout Daniel Isn’t Real. The filmmakers utilize a combination of both practical and CGI effects. While both are impressive, the practical effects are especially striking. They manage to be both beautiful and disturbing in a way that commands the screen and draws the viewers’ eye. The effects become more prominent and elaborate as the plot progresses and beautifully blends different worlds. Throughout much of the film, artwork is prominently featured as well. The most disturbing, beautiful, and iconic images are of Daniel. Along with the visual artistry, Daniel Isn’t Real also has a bewitching musical score by composer Clark (National Treasure: Kiri, Rellik). The score has an eeriness to it that matches the tone and look and the film.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a triumph of filmmaking. It claws its way into the minds and souls of audience members and never lets go. Both DeLeeuw and Mortimer deliver a masterpiece of a film. The performances from Robbins and Schwarzenegger demand attention and their on-screen chemistry is delightful to watch. What might be the biggest feat of Daniel Isn’t Real is how it takes ideas that wouldn’t traditionally work on screen and executes them perfectly. As an indication of how much I enjoyed this film, I went online and bought the novel Daniel Isn’t Real is based on as I wrote this review. This is a must-watch film and one that has solidified its place in my top films of 2019.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10