Those who enjoy their horror with a good dose of paranoid thrills, creature effects and trippy visuals are going to have a great deal of fun with Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, a horror flick with its eye on 80’s body horror and all the pulp that comes dripping with it.
Miles Robbins stars as Luke, a college student who keeps himself to himself, often bound to anxiety attacks as he attempts to balance college life with the responsibility of caring for his mentally ill mother (Mary Stuart Masterson). When his mother is taken to hospital, Luke finds himself alone and reverts to calling upon his old imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzengger), who he has subconsciously kept locked away since a disturbing event in his childhood. Having Daniel back by his side soon boosts Luke’s confidence, improving his social life as a result. However, it soon becomes clear that Daniel may not be all that he seems, with his influence fuelled by a darker motivation than Luke can possibly imagine.
Daniel Isn’t Real walks that very fine tightrope between treating a story concerning mental illness with a level of empathy, all the while also delivering a grisly and often disturbing horror movie at the same time. It sometimes trips on that tightrope as Luke slowly loses more and more control over Daniel’s influence on him, but for the most part, Mortimer finds a way to balance a tricky subject whilst also crafting a horror experience that has a clear adoration for the squelchy video nasties of the 1980s.
Part of why it works as well as it does is the manner in which it is structured. As Luke loses more and more of a grip of his mind and reality, the film becomes increasingly more stylised. As the boundaries between reality and fantasy begin to blur and become one, Mortimer and his team amp up the tension, making for a psychological thriller that often proves to be unsettling as we witness Luke fight a battle with his own subconscious (or is it something more!?) This all builds up to the final act that goes all-in on the stylisation, combining awesome lighting, sound design and grisly practical effects to startling potency, all driven to Chris Clark’s haunting synths. It is a horror that increasingly amps up on hallucinogens as it goes, and that loss of control feels equally as daring as it is dangerous, making it all the more thrilling to witness.
The other reason it works so well is down to the cast. Sasha Lane is incredibly soulful as an artist that Luke begins to forge a relationship with, sparking great chemistry with Miles Robbins in the lead, who brings a lot of twitchy energy to Luke as well as a level of charisma that feels innocent and sweet, and wholly un-deserving of the twisted events that befall him. As Daniel, Patrick ‘son of Arnold’ Schwarzenegger puts his sharp features to use in a manner that’s both alarmingly charming and exceedingly creepy. It’s a very off-key performance, one that really drives the film’s theme of toxic masculinity to its most interesting and extreme areas. A very fun performance, with Schwarzeneggger going full demonic Patrick Bateman on proceedings.
Daniel Isn’t Real should prove to be one hell of a trip for genre fans. While it may draw comparisons to Mandy in its marketing (they share producers, Elijah Wood among them), it is a different beast that is bizarre in its own unique way, despite also having a taste for similar pulpy 80’s fantasy horror titles, chiefly the likes of Hellraiser and Phantasm. This is an hallucinatory ride with a striking sense of style and a sweat-inducing atmosphere, a ride that’ll keep you off your balance in a way that’s both uncomfortable but very hard to tear away from.
Dir: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Scr: Adam Egypt Mortimer, Brian DeLeeuw, based on DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved
DOP: Lyle Vincent
Music: Chris Clark
Run time: 100 mins
Daniel Isn’t Real is released in UK cinemas from 7th February 2020.