Daniel Isn’t Real is another horror movie from Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah’s production house, SpectreVision, the company that brought us Mandy, The Greasy Strangler and most recently, The Color Out of Space. It is the second feature from director Adam Egypt Mortimer and is based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by co-writer Brian DeLeeuw.
After a traumatic experience in his early childhood and the separation of his parents, lonely kid Luke invents an imaginary friend, Daniel. All is well at first, it seems. Luke has a playmate and blame taker, until Daniel coerces Luke into harming his mother. After which, Daniel is banished.
Some years later, Luke is just starting college and living out of home for the first time. His mother is struggling with her mental health and a troubling incident serves as the catalyst for
Luke (Miles Robbins) to recall Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) to his life. As before, everything is initially well, as Daniel gives Luke some much needed confidence and positive affirmation, helping him in his fledgling relationship with artist Cassie (Sasha Lane). However, it will come as no surprise to tell you that, before long, Daniel reveals his intentions are far more sinister.
The imaginary friend angle is quite a tasty area for horror exploration and Adam Egypt Mortimer does a good job digging around in the darker corners of the concept so the movie avoids sliding into grown-up Drop Dead Fred territory. In framing the early events ambiguously, the audience cannot be certain if Daniel is a genuine, malevolent entity, or if he is merely the depiction of Luke’s mental unravelling.
For this reason, we can draw some comparison to Fight Club, as both movies deal with ideas of multiple identity. Alternatively, think along the lines of a more sophisticated Brain Damage – using a supernatural element to personify psychosis, which can be taken both at face value and also as commentary on illness. Where Frank Henenlotter’s sleaze classic talks about addiction under the guise of a murderous invertebrate, Daniel Isn’t Real deals with Luke’s mental wellbeing via Daniel’s influence and his assertion that he is a part of him.
Daniel Isn’t Real also takes on that grand tradition of horror and science fiction wherein new abilities enhance, and then destroy, the life of our protagonist. Like the invigorating salad days of Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly transformation in Cronenberg’s The Fly, or more recently, the insidious cybernetic implants of Leigh Wannell’s Upgrade. The Faustian economy of playing with forces we don’t understand always ensures that somebody comes a cropper. In Luke’s case, he doesn’t exactly bargain for Daniel’s return and is definitely his victim, rather than collaborator. But, he does willingly invite Daniel back into his life in a time of crisis and then suffers the consequences.
The first half of Daniel Isn’t Real is compelling, as the movie balances perfectly in the centre of the real vs unreal debate. It’s helped along by Miles Robbins’ nervy performance as Luke and Patrick Schwarzenegger’s obnoxious alpha-male overconfidence as Daniel. If you subscribe to the idea that they are one and the same person, then Luke represents the introverted side of his personality and Daniel the extrovert.
In the latter part of the movie events take a more surreal turn and when this occurs, the effects work takes a step up. There’s some very cool and trippy body horror going on that’s great to look at, but it comes at the expense of the narrative. In other words, it looks great, but it gets less interesting. And so the early promise levels off and we can’t help feeling a little bit underwhelmed by the time credits roll.
While at times the concept is stronger than the execution, Daniel Isn’t Real is still worth your attention. It might not blow any minds, but it’s an indie horror with a big idea, and that’s something horror fans should always be prepared to check out.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★✩✩
‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ is out now on all digital platforms and DVD across Australia.