Daniel Isn’t Real marks Adam Egypt Mortimer’s follow-up to the badly-received Some Kind of Hate, which infamously received no applause the year it played Frightfest (I was in the audience and still feel bad about it to this day; I mean, come on, you guys clapped for The Human Centipede II FFS — it wasn’t that bad). This new movie again deploys a crucial mental health element, which is either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid on Mortimer’s part (to be fair, it’s based on Brian DeLeeuw’s source novel, so it’s not entirely on him).
Opening with a horrific shooting at a diner, the film swiftly pivots to introduce young Luke (played as a kid by Griffin Robert Faulkner), a well-off but lonely kid whose parents fight constantly while surrounded by art in their massive brownstone. Having witnessed the crime, Luke seems at his lowest point when sharply-dressed imaginary friend Daniel (who looks like the ghostly goth kid from Sinister 2) appears to help him out. The duo instantly become best pals, having sword fights with brooms and whatnot, while Luke’s mother looks on appreciatively.
Things take a turn after Daniel persuades Luke to put something dodgy in her drink and, although she survives, Luke’s mother isn’t stupid and she forces her son to relegate Daniel to his dollhouse, where he shall remain forevermore, to keep them both safe. The imaginary friend being trapped in this toy is visually communicated via colorful flashing lights dancing about the place, suggesting something demonic is at play here and emphasizing the film’s trippy feel.
We then skip ahead to a grown up Luke, now played by Halloween 2018’s Miles Robbins, looking like the lost Sprouse triplet with his stoner hairdo chopped off, who’s having some trouble adjusting to college life. He’s in therapy and he has a seizure at a (weird, to be fair) party, and, while visiting his mother in the dusty art gallery she still calls a home, Daniel sees his opportunity to re-enter Luke’s life. Still sharply dressed, and still clearly evil, Daniel is now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger with a devilishly crooked grin.
At first, he helps Luke to speak to women, piss off his annoying roommate, and generally do better in life. Daniel even encourages Luke to dabble with drugs and be more promiscuous, even as he starts to fall for a cool young artist (Sasha Lane, recovering from unconvincingly saying English things like “bollocks!” and “sorted!” in the new Hellboy). But things take a turn for the worse when Daniel insists on taking over Luke’s body, telling him ominously, “It’s not cheating if it’s me.” This loss of control signals a major change for these longtime BFFs, in ways neither can imagine.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a hugely effective horror movie, thanks in large part to its two peerless central performances. Robbins, previously known exclusively for comedy, originally petitioned Mortimer to play Daniel, which adds a further desperate edge to his portrayal of odd-one-out Luke. He’s revelatory here, selling every second of his character’s excruciating descent into madness even as the film strays into increasingly more bizarre territory. We empathize with him as he tries to get help, but also question his motives constantly.
Schwarzenegger has the showier role, but he communicates Daniel’s darker tendencies subtly, rarely raising his voice above a purring whisper. He’s like the snake from The Jungle Book, encouraging Luke to come closer before twisting around him to squeeze the life out of him. His powers aren’t entirely clear, which somehow makes him even scarier. Daniel doesn’t like to be ignored, nor does he appreciate when Luke is the one in control. The moment when Daniel finally takes over Luke’s body, crawling inside him like a warm kitten, is truly disturbing.
Daniel Isn’t Real is loaded with terrific visuals like this, equally beautiful and frightening. The colors are sharp and strong throughout, with plenty of deep reds, blues, greens, and purples employed. The personification of an actual demon, and the land where it resides (a traveler looking for a home, as per the movie’s description), is incredibly well-realized, familiar but slightly off — again, pretty but scary. The whole movie has this kind of off kilter feeling, as though it exists in a world not unlike our own but shrouded in darkness we can’t usually see.
There’s a suggestion of hereditary mental illness with Luke’s mother, but it isn’t exploitative, and the young man rushing to tell his therapist what’s going on with Daniel ensures it’s clear he isn’t some dummy happily succumbing to his (very literal) demons until it’s too late. Mortimer was criticized for using mental health as a gory punchline in Some Kind of Hate, but here the subject is handled sensitively. Luke isn’t a crazy person, he just needs some help and he asks for it accordingly.
Daniel Isn’t Real is also notable for featuring a young man happy to go down on his lady (more of this in movies, please, and to hell with the MPAA!), who is eager to be monogamous rather than playing the field. Lane isn’t relegated to the girlfriend role either; she has a part to play in Luke’s downfall and, much like the protagonist himself, she’s no fool. These seem like small things but it’s nice to see smart, capable characters, both male and female, acting like actual human beings in difficult circumstances. There’s no running up the stairs instead of out the front door here.
Crucially, there’s a major payoff in the final act for everything that was set up in the first, leading to a strong, bold, and brave ending that leaves the question of whether Luke is the hero or villain of his own story up to us. Daniel Isn’t Real builds up a hell of a lot of momentum over its relatively short run-time, but it’s thankfully all leading to something genuinely satisfying. This is a great showcase for the combined talents of Robbins, Schwarzenegger, and Lane, but it’s also proof, if any were needed, that Mortimer knows his way around a dark, intelligent story about mental health and personal demons. One of the most gorgeous and compelling horror movies of the year.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Adam Egypt Mortimer
Writer(s): Brian DeLeeuw, Adam Egypt Mortimer
Stars: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks
Release date: December 6, 2019 (limited, Internet)
Studio/Production Company: Spectrevision
Run Time: 96 minutes