At some point, we probably all had an imaginary friend. But what if that friend wasn’t so imaginary. And that’s the jumping point for South by Southwest psychological horror thriller Daniel Isn’t Real. Up-and-coming horror director Adam Egypt Mortimer, and Brian DeLeeuw, adapted DeLeeuw’s own novel, In This Way I Was Saved, for the indie thriller. To date, the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. While the concept of ‘imaginary friends’ has popped up now and then in horror, Daniel Isn’t Real promises a mix of psychological horror with some trippy visuals.
Awkward and lonely, Luke is a struggling college student. Years earlier, Luke’s father abandoned the family when he couldn’t cope with his mother’s worsening schizophrenia. To cope with his anger, Luke created an imaginary friend, Daniel. But a near tragedy forced Luke to ‘lock away’ his friend in a toy dollhouse. Now Luke worries that he may suffer from the same affliction as his mother. Following the advice of his doctor, Luke ‘re-connects’ with Daniel. While he initially seems to have a positive impact on Luke’s life, dangerous consequences to Daniel’s re-emergence slowly unfold.
Daniel Isn’t Real a Visually Disturbing Thriller
If the idea of imaginary friends taking a life of their own has been done, director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s visual approach makes the movie his own. As opposed to relying on jump scares and loud sounds, Mortimer allows the horror to largely emerge from context. Certainly, Daniel Isn’t Real has a few genuine shocks. An early scene in a diner that initially feels benign abruptly jolts you out of any complacency as a viewer. Similar to most horror movies, there’s also a fair share of quick edits to creepy sights.
… Daniel Isn’t Real alternates between hauntingly dreamy visuals and jarringly distorted images
However, where Mortimer delivers many of the scares is from the movie’s unique visual approach to the material. Not quite as psychedelic or surreal as Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, Daniel Isn’t Real alternates between hauntingly dreamy visuals and jarringly distorted images. Mortimer immediately opens the movie with a stunning, swirling pink landscape. Throughout the movie, Mortimer punctuates scenes with disturbing imagery intended to reveal the horrors of mental illness. Credit goes to effects supervisor George A Loucas and designer Martin Astles for their impressing practical demon design. Daniel Isn’t Real’s budget never betrays the quality of what’s committed to the screen.
Daniel Isn’t Real a Compelling Look at Mental Illness
Historically, the horror genre hasn’t treated mental illness with much sensitivity. In particular, slasher movies from the subgenre’s ‘Golden Era’ frequently positioned the mentally ill as ‘dangerous’. To some extent, Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t a very subtle metaphor for Luke’s struggles with mental illness. And it’s not likely intended to be subtle. After all, Luke’s relationship with his schizophrenic mother and his fears for his own mental health are the emotional crux of the movie. In addition, Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t even the best recent example of the horror genre tackling mental health without vilifying it. Low-budget thriller, They Look Like People, is stand-out example. Nevertheless, Daniel Isn’t Real aptly balances its examination of the horror and fear of losing one’s grip on reality with a more portrait of its central character.
Schwarzenegger Makes for Charismatically Compelling Villain
It’s too bad Daniel Isn’t Real didn’t get a full theatrical release. Despite its clearly low budget, this psychological thriller boasts some strong performances. As the titular ‘Daniel’, Patrick Schwarzenegger delivers what amounts to a star-making performance. He’s equal parts charismatic and menacing, which results in a compelling villain. Simply put, Schwarzenegger exudes a natural confidence on screen, not unlike his father. Playing opposite Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins (Halloween 2018) captures his character’s conflicted. From sadly likable to paranoid and frightened, Robbins serves his character well.
… Masterson’s ‘mother-son’ relationship with Robbins gives Daniel Isn’t Real its emotional core.
After a bigger role in the disappointing Hellboy remake, Sasha Lane makes the best of smaller, less demanding role. For the most part, Lane is stuck playing the quirky ‘love interest’. But even with a smaller part, Lane flashes some impressive acting chops. She more than holds her own with her co-stars, suggesting bigger things down the road. Similarly, veteran actress Mary Stuart Masterson doesn’t get much screen time. Yet Masterson still turns in one of the more affecting performances in the movie. If Robbins and Lane lack some chemistry, Masterson’s ‘mother-son’ relationship with Robbins gives Daniel Isn’t Real its emotional core.
No, You Didn’t Just Imagine It – Daniel Isn’t Real is Really Good
Some critics may point to the movie’s familiar subject matter and somewhat heavy-handedness, but Daniel Isn’t Real thoroughly engages and disturbs. Visually, the movie delivers some trippy sights along with genuinely impressive creature design. And even if not all the relationships in the movie work, the performances – particularly from Schwarzenegger – work. Overall, Daniel Isn’t Real offers a tragic, haunting, and poignant look at mental illness.