FEATURING: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji, Mary Stuart Masterson
PLOT: Escaping an unpleasant encounter between his parents, young Luke instead witnesses the aftermath of a mass murder; immediately following, his friend Daniel manifests.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Daniel Isn’t Real‘s beautiful visual style, that at times evokes techno-metal Suspiria, is put to the service of an engaging story about the connection between demonic possession and mental illness. Despite the advent of hundreds of Apocrypha slots, however, Daniel Isn’t Real hews much more closely to distorted horror than the insanity we’d prefer.
COMMENTS: As rip-offs go, Daniel Isn’t Real is a mighty fine one. I use that phrase without its negative connotations; as the director himself explained after the movie, it is important for filmmakers to be able to rip off what’s come before. They can grow when what starts as an explicit homage becomes something new. Adam Mortimer is growing as a director, and there ‘s no shame in him acknowledging his influences. He began as a music video director, a background that served him well for the dreamlike nature of this movie.
At its core, Daniel Isn’t Real is the story of a troubled young artist on the cusp of schizophrenia. Luke (Miles Robbins) acquired the mysterious friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) during his childhood. Now Daniel, once locked in an otherworldly, fortress-like dollhouse for having pushed young Luke to try to kill his mother, appears again. He shows up at just the right time, it seems, helping Luke to navigate college life, giving him advice and support, and, in one amusing scene, even helping him to cheat on a math test. However, Daniel begins resenting Luke’s control and seeks to take control of Luke’s body. As for Luke, he experiences the cost of following the lead of a wholly uninhibited, and violent, part of of himself.
Mortimer described the visual aesthetic of the film—particularly Daniel’s world—as “ultraviolet.” It’s a handy term, despite the fact that that “color” is technically in the invisible part of the spectrum. Daniel’s unreal purple lighting cues reinforce the character’s underlying menace (which is established well by Patrick Schwarzenegger’s channeling‘s American Psycho-yuppie). This contrast between the soft and gentle illumination of Luke’s world and Daniel’s underworld is the primary motif that helps the audience differentiate visually what they’re experiencing in the narrative. Luke’s real world goes drab and sickens into an amber palette as his grip on his own mind and body disintegrates.
The main joy I found in Daniel Isn’t Real comes from its early depiction of the relationship between the two sides of Luke. (Or, the movie suggests, the relationship between Luke and this mystical entity that has entered his psyche.) Their playful relationship as young boys is reminiscent of experiences of those who were outcasts growing up. Tying the dangers of mental trauma to the metaphor of demonic possession makes it clear that, as much as we may find comfort in the manifestation of our “stronger” side, our insecurities are the signposts of what keeps us anchored to those around us. By skating on the edge of psychological horror and supernatural horror, Adam Mortimer performs a neat hat trick that kept me gripped right through the final fantastical showdown.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a mind-bendingly freaky psychological horrorshow that crawls disconcertingly into your head and stays in there, gnawing away, long after the credits fade… Echoes of the creeping, dissociative paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant-era Polanski run throughout the film, but Daniel Isn’t Real is very much its own distinct fever dream of chimerical unease. Highly recommended.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (festival screening)