30th Aug2019

Frightfest 2019: ‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Griffin Robert Faulkner, Nathan Reid, Chase Sui Wonders, Andrew Bridges, Peter McRobbie | Written by Adam Egypt Mortimer, Brian DeLeeuw | Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer

daniel-real-poster

Based on co-writer Brian DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved, Daniel Isn’t Real is the second feature from director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate). Dark, disturbing and beautifully made, it takes the basic idea of an evil imaginary friend and twists it into a chilling and intense nightmare that goes to some unexpected places.

Daniel Isn’t Real begins in New York, where eight year old Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) gains an imaginary friend called Daniel (Nathan Reid) as a way of coping with both his divorcing parents and the fact that he’s just stumbled upon the aftermath of a mass shooting. However, when Daniel tricks Luke into nearly poisoning his mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), she forces him to mentally lock his imaginary friend away in a doll’s house.

Twelve years later, a grown-up Luke (now played by Miles Robbins, son of Tim) is a troubled college student, who’s persuaded by his school counsellor (Chukwudi Iwuji) to address issues he’s locked away from his childhood. Soon, Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold) is back on the scene, and though he initially helps Luke restore his confidence – particularly with girls, notably fellow students Cassie (Sasha Lane) and Sophie (Hannah Marks) – it quickly becomes clear that Daniel has both his own agenda and his own dark desires.

Schwarzenegger is terrific as Daniel, seemingly channelling Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman (they even look similar) and giving the character a swagger of toxic masculinity. However, the genius touch in the performance is that Daniel isn’t just pure evil – there’s a moment, after Luke begins connecting with Cassie, where Daniel is genuinely hurt, as he realises he will lose his only friend. Robbins is equally good as Luke, and he does a superb job of charting Luke’s shifts in character, from introverted to confident to outright malevolence as the Daniel side of him gains the upper hand. Similarly, there’s strong work from both Sasha Lane and Hannah Marks, with Lane in particular generating strong chemistry with Robbins.

The script is full of interesting ideas, finding things to say about identity, trauma, toxic male behaviour and mental illness, while riffing on other imaginary friend movies, such as Fight Club. It’s also beautifully structured, getting increasingly darker until, without giving too much away, it takes a decidedly unexpected left turn into territory reminiscent of David Lynch and Hellraiser.

Mortimer’s direction is assured throughout, maintaining firm control of the tone and creating an extremely tense atmosphere that builds and builds until it reaches fever pitch. He also has an eye for a supremely creepy moment, and knows when to deploy a state-of-the-art special effect for maximum shock value (one moment in particular will give you unpleasant flashbacks to “the shunting” in Brian Yuzna’s Society).

The film is further heightened by stunning, colour-saturated cinematography from Lyle Vincent (who shot Thoroughbreds) and some detailed production design work, as well as a suitably atmospheric score from Clark. Great poster too.

**** 4/5

Daniel Isn’t Real screened at this years Arrow Video Frightfest on Sunday August 25th 2019.

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