A psychological horror with dark comedy and fantasy elements. A “cosmic horror”. A horror/thriller. However you label it, Daniel Isn’t Real is a refreshing new entry in the catalogue of indie genre films — a stylish, twisted trip into the dark psyche that is equal parts fun and terrifying.
Based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by co-writer Brian Deleeuw, and directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate, Holidays), Daniel Isn’t Real is the tale of a lonely young man, college freshman Luke (Miles Robbins), who begins to lose his grasp on both his sense of self and of reality as he struggles with his inner demons – well, one demon in particular: his imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Swarzenegger).
Daniel first appears after Luke witnesses a traumatic event as a child, and he immediately becomes Luke’s best friend and also his biggest influence – for better and for worse. When Luke’s mom (Mary Stuart Masterson) realizes that the dark-natured Daniel isn’t playing nicely per se (one Daniel-influenced incident nearly kills her), she forces her son to “banish” his imaginary friend to an old dollhouse. But as Luke enters college and his mom’s mental health deteriorates, Daniel re-emerges, and it’s not long before he begins to take over Luke’s life.
The grown-up Daniel is cooler, more handsome, more charismatic and confident than Luke. He knows how to get what he wants – even when that means taking it by force. He’s Luke’s shadow self, his dark half, and his influence begins to bleed into every part of Luke’s life, including his budding romantic relationship with free-spirited artist Cassie (Sasha Lane). As Daniel becomes more aggressive, and a more all-consuming presence, Luke begins to fear that he himself might be slipping into insanity.
Daniel Isn’t Real’s promising premise is delivered upon well, turning a sharp and sort of psychedelic lens on mental illness, on the fine line between genius and madness, and on the duality that exists within each of us: the battle for control of our soul, our ego, and our sanity that we all must navigate, and that our own brain chemistries and moral compasses must calibrate.
It’s both diabolically fun and disturbing to watch the push and pull of Daniel and Luke as they battle it out mentally and physically for control of Luke’s mind, body and soul, and their dynamic is bolstered by magnetic performances from Robbins and Schwarzenegger that make for an electrifying watch.
Snappy timing keeps the story moving while erratic cuts and frenetic camera angles lend to the feeling that we’re being pulled along for the ride on this descent into madness. Combined with gritty, dreamy cinematography from Lyle Vincent (Thoroughbreds, A Girl Walks Home Along at Night) and a cool, synth-heavy soundtrack, Daniel Isn’t Real evokes a real throwback vibe, reminiscent of some of the better genre gems of the eighties and nineties. If you grew up on such films, as one must conclude the Director Adam Egypt Mortimer did, you’ll likely find Daniel Isn’t Real breathes a welcome bit of new life into the realm. Throw a monster or two into the mix, some gnarly body horror, a dose of existential dread, and solid supporting performances across the board, and you’ve got a recipe for a true genre delight.
Daniel Isn’t Real screened at Beyond Fest on September 25th. It had its World Premiere at the SXSW Festival in March, and is scheduled to be released December 6, 2019.