Adam Egypt Mortimer directs Miles Robbins and his imaginary friend Patrick Schwarzenegger in this cosmic horror
Traumatized as a child after witnessing a horrific crime, a young Luke starts interacting with a new imaginary friend named Daniel. At first Daniel seems like a harmless coping mechanism meant to shield Luke from the memories of the bloody event that opens the film, but when Luke does something terrible at Daniel's behest, things get really dark, really quickly. Luke's mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), forces the boy to lock Daniel away in order to keep both of them safe, but as I'm sure you can imagine, that's not exactly the end of the story.
We rejoin a young adult Luke - now played by Miles Robbins (Halloween, Blockers) - who has moved out and into college twelve years later. When Claire, now tortured by mental illness, falls prey to her own inner demons, Miles once again has trouble coping, and Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) escapes from his cage and comes to the rescue. However, this time around, Daniel has more sinister designs on the boy, and somebody is going to get hurt really badly.
About halfway through Adam Egypt Mortimer's second feature, Daniel Isn't Real, the film takes a hard left turn from fantasy to cosmic horror. What starts out as essentially a dark re-imagining of early '90s oddball classics Drop Dead Fred, quickly pivots into a harrowing tale of what feels like psychological horror, except in this case, the danger turns out to be very much real. Without giving too much away, this film is not what you think it is, and with every new twist, the audience is knocked on its ass anew, making Daniel Isn't Real an exciting discovery and a genuinely original vision.
It's tough to talk about Daniel Isn't Real in terms that effectively relay just how surprising it is, because a lot of the most fun parts are plot twists that you'd never see coming. Mortimer has managed take a story that the audience thinks they already know, and send it off into the darkest corners of the genre universe while still managing to keep the action and emotional center of the story cleverly contained. It's a small story, about a boy and his imaginary friend, but it has potentially cosmic implications if things go sideways.
Mortimer made his first mark on the genre scene a few years back with his supernatural slasher, Some Kind Of Hate, a film that did pretty well on the festival circuit, but didn't stretch the boundaries of the genre too much. That was an original story, and apart from the ghost angle, it was well executed, but not particularly original. Here, Mortimer and his writing partner Brian DeLeeuw have adapted DeLeeuw's novel, "In This Way I Was Saved", and the results are far more interesting and surprising.
The two films are similar in terms of tone. Both address isolation and feelings of invisibility and inability to interact with the world at large and unhealthy ways of addressing these weaknesses. However, while Some Kind Of Hate took those ideas in a largely predictable direction, Daniel Isn't Real blends dark comedy with the kind of cosmic horror shown in films like Hellraiser.
The success of the film depends largely on the chemistry between the two leads, and Robbins and Schwarzenegger play off each other quite well. Robbins plays Luke as a relatively meek shy guy, where Schwarzenegger's Daniel is a boisterous loudmouth, the devil on Luke's shoulder, his id, and at first it's very easy to believe that Daniel is, in fact, not real. The two of them are polar opposites on screen, and so when the time comes for them to do some crossing over of character, it's even more impressive what they are able to do.
On a technical level, Daniel Isn't Real is well mounted. Though I'm not a particular fan of the dour color palette, I understand it as reflective of Luke's life and outlook. Unfortunately, a lot of the action can be difficult to see until the very end, which is tonally appropriate, but still makes for a bit of a challenging watch. On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of the synth soundtrack that pulsates throughout the film and helps deliver the coup de grace in terms of laying a foundation for the twists and turns and easing the audience into an experience they weren't expecting. I'm also a pretty big fan of the practical effects that appear in the second half of the film, which seem to owe a lot to the great '80s creature features so many of us love.
I will admit, while I thought it was perfectly fine, I wasn't blown away by Some Kind Of Hate, which made me hesitant to embrace Daniel Isn't Real, but I am a believer now. Mortimer has an eye and a good sense of story and is able to lead the audience in the directions he wants them to go without tipping his hand. I do think some of the acting could've used a bit of polish, but nothing terribly distracting, and the leads did their jobs well. Daniel Isn't Real is the product of a rare kind of voice in genre cinema. In these days where it seems like new horror movies are a dime a dozen, it's wonderful to get something of substance that genuinely surprises, and this is it.