Let’s get imaginary friends! For today’s double feature, we need to all try and remember back to our childhoods. For some, it may have been a while – it certainly is for me. If you were a single child or did not have siblings near your age, you may have had an imaginary friend. Someone as a young child you imagined playing with when other kids were not around, or you just felt lonely. Maybe that friend was harmless, or perhaps they made you do bad things or things you were not supposed to do. You know, stuff like dancing on tables, writing on walls, getting into things you were not supposed to, throwing that annoying kid down the stairs. Wow, wait, did I just write “throw a kid down the stairs?” I sure did because today’s double feature is about imaginary friends that are a lot more malicious than usual in Z and Daniel Isn’t Real.
Z or Z Wants to Play is a great indie horror movie with a monster that largely goes unseen and a tense, clever storyline. Beth is the mother of 8-year-old Joshua, who is an outsider. At school, he eats alone and is made fun of by the other kids. She can tell he is unhappy but is trying to figure out ways to improve the situation, including taking him to a counselor and arranging playdates for him with a friend’s son. To complicate things further, Beth’s mother is dying, and she is trying to cope with that while managing her estate. So she finds some relief when Joshua creates an imaginary friend. It’s harmless at first, but then a monstrous drawing appears in her son’s playroom that he says Z, his imaginary friend, did. Beth tries to clean it up, but the drawing reappears. Other strange things happen, and then an old speak and spell types out the message “imagine Z.” When Beth starts to chant the message, Z appears in front of her for a moment.
Needless to say, Beth is terrified by this turn of events. As worse things begin to happen, Beth discovers she has a connection to Z that she does not realize.
Z is a pretty good indie horror movie that focuses on its strengths and does not try to do a monster design. Instead, Z employs subtlety with how and when Z manifests. The film is well made and directed. Scenes do not run on too long or feel forced. The acting is excellent; Keegan Connor Tracy as Beth especially. She has to carry a lot of the film and convey the terror she feels at something she does not see and later something only she sees. And the genius of how scary Z is a monster is the fact you only see him as a viewer three times in the entire film, and each time it is literally only for a second. You will probably have to do rewinding and pausing like I did to comprehend what they’re showing you, but therein lies the brilliance of a barely seen monster. Far too often, complaints arise from viewers disappointed in how a monster looks. With Z, the viewer is left with their imaginations and, like the characters on screen, an inability to truly sense danger because it comes from an invisible source.
Daniel Isn’t Real is an indie horror movie with a charismatic villain with a concrete origin and a lot clearer motivations. Luke is a troubled and lonely boy trying to deal with his parent’s divorce. After a mass shooting near his home, he meets another boy gathered outside the location watching the police in the aftermath named Daniel. Daniel and Luke become fast friends, and it becomes apparent that Daniel is not real when Luke’s mother states she cannot see him. Daniel convinces Luke to mix his mother’s psychiatric medicine into a smoothie for her saying it will give her superpowers; the results nearly kill her. She convinces Luke to imagine projecting with his mind and locking Daniel away into an old dollhouse. The story fast forwards to Luke, now a college student. He is anxious about his future, social life, and commitment to his mother, who suffers from paranoid delusions, which he tells his therapist he fears he may develop the same problem. One night while staying in his childhood home, he opens the dollhouse. Daniel reappears now as an adult, ready to influence Luke. At first, he is charismatic and fun, the good buddy that Luke needs. But sooner rather than later, Daniel starts to become more troublesome and gets Luke into trouble. Luke also begins to suspect Daniel is taking over his body while he sleeps and does not know if he can stop Daniel.
A great amount of Daniel Isn’t Real’s power as a film comes from the story and its actors’ strength. Patrick Schwarzenegger, son to the action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, is fantastic as Daniel. He is charming and friendly at first and then becomes manipulative and mean as the film progresses. Patrick seems to enjoy playing the role, and it shows onscreen. Miles Robin does well as the anxious and neurotic Luke. The effects are great, and there are some great effects shots.
Finally, please do not mistake that going into this double feature, you will end up watching two movies that are the same; they are not. The motivations of each monster are different, and the origins of them are as well. Both are available as streaming through shudder as both were shudder presentations, but you can also find them elsewhere. So get yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk and watch a couple of great horror movies.