Daniel Isn’t Real…
Daniel isn’t Real. Or maybe he is. Either way, he’s causing trouble. This premise seems simple for a horror film, maybe one seen a dozen or more times over the years, but this dilemma is given great poignancy and social weight in director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s creepy and stylish new film, Daniel Isn’t Real. This is a picture that offers no easy answers for its mysteries or paths for its characters. It’s twists, creative ingenuity, weird atmosphere, and gooey, body horror special effects will delight genre fans, but it is this film’s humanity and daring to wrestle with tough issues that will establish Daniel Isn’t Real as required horror viewing.
The film concerns Luke (Miles Robbins), an unhappy and troubled young man who we are introduced in the opening as a lonely child stuck in the middle of a loud divorce between his father and mentally ill mother. When he leaves his house during one of their arguments one day, he accidentally finds himself faced with the traumatic aftermath of a mass shooting. It is in this painful moment that Daniel, Luke’s imaginary friend, first appears, offering the boy friendship and fun, and he delivers. However, when Daniel’s games grow increasingly malicious and harmful, Luke is forced to lock his only friend away in an old dollhouse.
Years later, Luke’s life has not improved. He is socially awkward and anxious, attends college for law when it is very strongly suggested he wishes for photography, and is left alone to handle his mother as her schizophrenia takes more and more of a hold on her mind. It is during this emotional turmoil that Daniel returns (older, now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger). Once again, he appears to be the perfect friend at first. Daniel helps Luke boost his confidence and conquer his introversion. He helps Luke have some damn fun for once! But there is a toxicity to Daniel that is in danger of also infecting Luke.
A great horror movie is never in one box. George A. Romero knew that, which is why he strived to compose films that delivered on gore and social commentary. It’s why Sam Raimi balances both laughs and terror in the Evil Dead films. Daniel Isn’t Real succeeds in balancing its scares with its layers of metaphors and fearless exploration of the issues and risks facing people growing up in today’s society.
Luke’s loneliness is unfortunately common amongst young people today. In fact, the prevalence of this theme may make this the finest New York City horror film since American Psycho or Maniac because it employs the city as imposing figure that directly affects the characters, a figure that must be reckoned with. The NYC of the film, as in real life, is a lonesome place despite Hollywood romanticism, and it is very easy for people, especially young people, to get lost in the crowd. Identities come into question as does one’s self-worth and place in the world, all of which are sometimes far too difficult to reconcile in a city as vast and cold as NYC can be. Luke is plagued by these feelings—they foster anxiety and depression in him, and he is incapable of overcoming them. It’s why we never see Luke comfortable around people his own age, and, perhaps, why he is enrolled in pre-law—typically a field of study stacked with competition with a reputation of socially acceptable conformity—instead of pursuing his artistic interest in photography. It’s a choice between giving in to his isolation and loneliness and coming to terms with who he is as an individual and his relationship with the world at large.
The film also meditates on mental illness and its effect on young people. Luke’s fragility and issues with self certainly originate with the instability of his mother and their home life. Hauntingly played by Mary Stuart Masterson, Luke’s mother suffers from schizophrenia, and her condition has worsened to the point of delusions, hoarding, and self harm by the time he is an adult. Luke reveals during therapy that his biggest fear is ending up trapped in his own mind like her, which is complicated by the reappearance of Daniel because the imaginary friend may then embody the hereditary inevitability of this psychosis. The film toys with this idea of Daniel reflecting Daniel’s fears throughout, especially in the film’s final fifteen minutes, which delve deeper into a possible metaphor for the unfathomable otherworldliness that typifies the experience of an ill person in crisis and does so with an incredibly empathetic language that is welcomed in a genre that historically demonizes such struggles. However, despite the strong handling of mental illness, Daniel Isn’t Real doesn’t seem exclusively about this issue, or even this issue and loneliness. They are symptoms that don’t as much explain Daniel’s existence as they do the ease with which he enters Luke’s life.
Luke’s vulnerability makes him a prime target and invites Daniel in. He is in desperate need of friendship, connection, and strength when Daniel appears to him as an adult. Luke is naturally weary of the presence of his old imaginary friend at first, fearful of what this may mean for his mind. But Daniel has a magnetic, charismatic personality, and he uses to his advantage to ease Luke’s concerns. Daniel helps Luke let loose and boosts his confidence, helping him academically and socially, especially with women, who Luke particularly has a tough time interacting with. Because Luke is initially presented with only the benefits of having Daniel around, he embraces him and puts to practice the entity’s “lessons and wisdom” in hopes of having a better life. However, Luke is oblivious to the toxic effects of this influence until it is too late. In a grotesque, nauseating scene of body horror, Daniel imposes his will on Luke and invades his very body with the purpose of imposing his will on a woman — a will that aggressive, misogynistic, and violent. The struggle for the rest of the film becomes Luke’s attempts to get out from under the control of Daniel and to protect the world from his dangerous actions.
It isn’t hard to see the metaphor of radicalization once this twist occurs. Daniel’s charm and energy are characteristic of figures in today’s society who prey on those who are weak or afraid — people like Luke who have trouble fitting in or truly defining who they are. Daniel doesn’t help Luke find love or develop meaningful relationships with the world, he pushes him to be shallow and to treat women as playthings, things to be used until they aren’t fun anymore or a shinier, new toy turns up. It’s false confidence that Luke is being given, and it blinds him to the fact that Daniel is stripping him of his individuality and molding him into a clone, a monster.
This is, perhaps, the scariest aspect of this film, because it most accurately echoes the epidemic of a type of radicalization running rampant in today’s society. Every day, more and more impressionable, misguided young men are being brainwashed online into being bitter “incels,” misogynists, and white supremacists. In the worst cases, they are even weaponized, just as Luke is weaponized by Daniel. Director, Adam Egypt Mortimer, fearlessly explores this issue, the ensuing madness and pain this behavior causes to both the person and the people around them. However, in a move that has caused some dissatisfaction among other viewers and critics, Mortimer does not present a solution to the problem and instead allows the situation to play out to an ugly, brutal end. In this author’s opinion, this choice is brave and exhibits a true understanding of horror filmmaking that confronts the political and social difficulties of contemporary society, but often never offering easy paths to resolution because there simply are none. Horror is a mirror of society, not its savior.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a film that defies expectations. It exists on the edge between cult horror and high concept, high prestige horror and is an incredible rich and poignant film because of it. The direction is imbued with a sense of purpose that is perfectly balanced with its commitment to haunting atmosphere and tension expected from the genre and inspiring empathy in its creators. Its exploitation of relatable and timely fears is challenging and chilling, and viewers will no doubt feel that chill in their spines long after the credits roll because the question of if Daniel is or isn’t real in the film hardly matters. Daniel is real in the real world.
Jesse Berberich | Twitter: @JesseBerberich
Images: Samuel Goldwyn Films