Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Starring: Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chuk Iwuji
Run Time: 100mins
Adam Egypt Mortimer's second feature arrives on streaming with a lot of hype in horror circles following a successful festival circuit run, even picking up an award at the prestigious Sitges festival. The question does it live up to the hype? The answer is well, sort of.
Certainly, it has an interesting conceit as a violent interaction with his mentally ill mother (Masterson) resurrects our leads Luke (Robbins) childhood imaginary friend Daniel (Schwarzenneger) back into his life. Initially, Daniel seems to spur him but quickly becomes increasingly more malevolent. Of course, while this does end up taking us into some very Fight Club-esque territory, the twist here is Luke always knows Daniel is a product of his mind and a possible symptom of schizophrenia. Or is he? As from the off, there is a suggestion something else is going on. More of which later.
Before we get to that, though, we open with Luke as a boy (Griffin Robert Faulkner) and see how Daniel first came into Luke's life after he witnesses the aftermath of a violent crime. This opening stretch is strong, effectively showing the bond between the two and anchored by Masterson's performance as the mother who at first welcomes her child's imaginary playmate before becoming increasingly more fearful of its influence. It is only a shame we don't have more time with Masterson's character, which is effectively sidelined after the first act.
Masterson's character is not only one to be sidelined, though, as, outside the central pairing of Luke and Daniel, few of the characters really register. This lack of character development is a real shame as it wastes the talents of a decent ensemble. It is particularly egregious in the case of Sasha Lane, who, while doing the best with what she has got, is confined to the generic role of feisty/quirky love interest.
Luckily, given few others are given oxygen, both Robbins and Schwarzenegger are excellent in their respective roles. Robbins is convincing throughout Luke's evolution from college recluse to swaggering intellectual to fearing for his mind. Schwarzenegger is the real show-stealer though initially imbuing Daniel with a toxic oily charm before becoming progressively more unhinged. Sure it is an exercise in scenery-chewing but eminently watchable one.
Another major plus is the horror itself, as there are some decent scares throughout. Mortimer is clearly in his element here. While many of the narrative beats feel generic, the visual horror elements feel unique. Even if some feel reminiscent of "Jacob's Ladder," there are several surreal, nightmarish images here that are likely to linger in the memory long after viewing them. The action in the third act also takes a pleasingly surreal bent that may split audiences but, for this reviewer, really worked. Mortimer should also be commended for his tackling of mental illness, which, largely, avoids feeling exploitative in the way it so often is in horror films.
Overall: A frustrating watch as "Daniel Isn't Real" is a good horror film that feels like it should be a great one. As the movie's compelling lead performances and memorable visuals can't quite overcome generic story elements and two-dimensional characters.
"Daniel Isn't Real" is now available on Shudder