Review: Z, Supernatural Horror Refracted Through Family Trauma
Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Klyne, and Sean Rogerson star in a horror/mystery, directed by Brandon Christensen, now available On Demand and Digital HD.
Imaginary friends. We all had them or likely knew someone who did.
Now, in the middle of the Social Media Age, they’re the rare exception, not the norm (if they ever were). For ultra-introspective, hyper-imaginative children, however, imaginary friends provided them with a coping mechanism, a way to act out fears and anxieties in a proverbial safe space (i.e., their bedrooms or backyards).
In writer-director Brandon Christensen's second feature-length feature, Z, a supernatural horror film that steadily unfolds as self-conscious collage, homage, and pastiche of other similarly themed genre entries (e.g., The Babadook, Insidious, Hide-And-Seek, The Ring), the imaginary friend who calls himself Z is more foe than friend to the rapidly fracturing family who find themselves spiritually, emotionally, and ultimately, physically endangered by his persistent intrusion into their lives.
At least initially, Christensen, working from a screenplay co-written with Colin Minihan, partner on his debut feature, Still/Born, keeps the story focused almost exclusively on Joshua Parsons (Jett Klyne), the 8-year-old son of a comfortably upper-middle-class-couple, Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy), a woman defined by the constricting roles of wife and mother, and Kevin (Sean Rogerson), an old-school breadwinner type with an unspecified job or career and an otherwise healthy skepticism of the supernatural.
Shy and withdrawn, Joshua’s behavior doesn’t begin to radically change for the worse until he introduces his parents to his new best friend, Z. Like most parents would in their situation, Elizabeth and Kevin simply decide to play along with Joshua’s new game, right up until Joshua begins to act out at school, apparently swearing up a storm (unacceptable in an 8-year-old, of course) and even worse, striking the other students in his class. Almost immediately, Joshua’s school suspends him, forcing Elizabeth back into primary caretaker mode.
Even as Christensen keeps his camera trained primarily on Joshua and his increasingly bizarre, broken behavior, behavior even a child psychologist, Dr. Seager (Stephen McHattie), can do little to change, Z begins to shift focus, imperceptibly at first, then much more clearly, from Joshua to Elizabeth as she attempts to adjust to the new normal, all the while questioning her parental skills and whether Joshua, a seemingly budding sociopath, can be guided or led into less destructive behavior through compassion and unconditional love.
What Elizabeth doesn’t know ― but the audience obviously does (a perfect example of dramatic irony) ― is that Z isn’t a figment of Joshua’s imagination, a crude, distilled representation of a Jungian Shadow, but something real, something tangible, some thing that can and will do harm if it doesn’t get what it wants (spoiler alert: Z wants more than Joshua as his forever best friend).
To Christensen and Minihan’s credit, they smartly sidestep any attempt to explain who or what Z is. He may be a demonic presence of some kind, but leave any further expository explanation unsaid. In her efforts to save Joshua, Elizabeth doesn’t discover an old, tattered copy of the Necronomicon in the family basement, behind a wall, or in a secret compartment. Elizabeth doesn’t have to take a trip to the local library to uncover an old family secret on outdated microfiche or even jump onto her desktop or laptop for an every-question-answered Google search.
Instead, they tie Z to Elizabeth, specifically a troubled, traumatic childhood, possibly abusive, but deliberately left all the more ambiguous By Christensen and Minihan, that she must somehow face and confront on her own, all the while Christensen, showing an easy mastery of tone, atmosphere, and mood here in just his second film, slowly, inexorably ratchets up the tension and turns the screws, Henry James-style, on his unsuspecting, fictional family.
Z takes more than a few unexpected plot turns, mostly to narrow the focus until only Elizabeth is left alone, but also to deliver a handful of well-executed, effective scares and jumps. Christensen keeps the jump scares to a minimum, usually building up to them gradually, stoking audience anticipation and dread well past the point of no return, before landing a hair-raising, visceral gut-punch that simultaneously knocks down character and audience alike.
Christensen has a keen understanding of the frailties inherent in domestic life, of the surfaces and pretenses necessary to maintain a healthy-seeming family to a quick-to-judge, external world. He also knows exactly when to start pushing and prodding those frailties and weaknesses until they give out completely, suggesting the imaginary friend who suddenly appears in Joshua and Elizabeth’s life is less a supernatural creature than a manifestation of generalized parental fears and anxieties and specific ones connected to unresolved trauma of the childhood kind.
Z is now available On Demand and Digital HD from RLJE Films and Shudder.
- Brandon Christensen
- Brandon Christensen
- Colin Minihan
- Keegan Connor Tracy
- Jett Klyne
- Sean Rogerson
- Sara Canning