For as big as the waves that SpectreVision is making in the indie horror scene with cult hits like The Greasy Strangler and Mandy, it’s a real wonder why a major distributor hasn’t taken a bigger chance putting their films out on a bigger scale. Founded by actor Elijah Wood and directors Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller, SpectreVision has made a name for itself making retro-style, neon-soaked horror that isn’t afraid of shying away from general batshit insanity at every point. This is an interesting fact, I know, considering that I have failed as a horror fan in admitting that Daniel Isn’t Real is the first of their films I’ve ever seen. It’s shameful, really, given how many glowing recommendations for Mandy were thrown across Film Twitter. This places Daniel Isn’t Real on a high pedestal out of the gate, because now not only does it have to stand up to the standards of being a good film on its own, it has to convince me of how much I’ve been missing by sitting out of SpectreVision’s previous productions.
What is delivered, instead, is something a bit less ridiculous than what was initially expected. Daniel Isn’t Real, while ticking all the boxes for being a gory, neon-soaked, batshit crazy horror film, is something far more intimate and terrifying. It’s a film that seeks to be a drama about mental illness first.
Luke (Miles Robbins) is a college freshman who is having a difficult time connecting to his classmates around him as he finds himself bouncing back and forth between school and his childhood home to take care of his severely mentally ill mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson). After an incident that leaves his mother hospitalized, Miles finds himself truly alone in his struggle, and subconsciously calls forth his imaginary friend from childhood, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), to help cope with the pain. While Luke initially finds his company reassuring, with Daniel helping Luke even strike up a romance with avant-garde artist Cassie (Sasha Lane), Daniel’s presence is soon found to be intrusive and parasitic.
Frankly put, Daniel Isn’t Real is the hard-hitting genre film surrounding the complexities of mental health that Joker wanted to be. It’s a film that doesn’t seek to simply scratch the surface of commenting on how society treats those suffering from mental illness but actively digs deep within Luke’s mind to explore the sheer terror that can be caused all within the mind. The regression of Luke’s stability ramps up in an exponential fashion, jumping from intimate dark drama to a feverish nightmare of a drug trip that we cannot escape. This intrinsically terrifying and claustrophobic approach to the film is something that increasingly constricts the viewers’ baited breath up until its final moments.
While Robbins and Schwarzenegger are impressive in their own rights as their respective characters (if you could even describe it as such), their chemistry falling down the rabbit hole of the love-hate relationship that exists with unhealthy coping mechanisms is compelling, poignant, and twistedly entertaining. Daniel himself doesn’t solely have to exist as a literal figure of just an imaginary friend, but could speak for the harmful habits of drug abuse, self-harm, low self-esteem, repressed sexuality, isolation, and grief, leading each interpretation down a different, but equally valid, path of enticing, yet grisly byproducts of mental illness.
Daniel Isn’t Real does hit a bit of a snag when it comes to its ancillary characters, particularly of Lane’s character of Cassie. Lane, the breakout star of 2016’s American Honey, struggles to find a groove with the character, as her screen time doesn’t particularly match up with the amount of depth that the screenplay lends to her. She forms a sort of dark twist on Maureen from Rent, with similarly severe broad generalizations about the nature of modern artists. It’s a shame, given how much depth and complexity is given to the relationship between Luke and Daniel, that a good portion of that couldn’t be dedicated more to Luke’s face-to-face relationships, given how crucial they become in the film’s final act.
Near the end of the film’s second act, a hard left turn is taken into new territory that you don’t expect given the subdued, if highly hypnotic, nature of the beginning of the film. And, come the film’s finale, Daniel Isn’t Real decides to just flip the car over entirely and carve something completely insane from the remains. This is the progression of insanity that makes films like this so inherently off-putting. Once the gloves of reality are taken off, the potential for a purer, more aggressive terror begins. It almost begins to take on elements of the final act of Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, with heavy leanings into visual metaphors that are far from subtle and are pulled off with far more successful results. Perhaps it’s thanks to the film’s comfort in truly going all out when it comes to building a story where something is inherently off-putting from the first frame of the film onwards, and building an atmosphere that lends itself to the outlandish early on, rather than relying solely on shock value.
The power of Daniel Isn’t Real lies in that it is highly disturbing and quite shocking and it hardly shies away from gore and sex and general insanity. It’s also in how the film plays its hands deliberately, offering a much more thematically satisfying, darkly intimate, and genuinely unnerving look at the literal world inside the mind of a troubled soul. It’s not a subtle film, nor does it try to be, and nor does it make the film’s statements any less poignant. In fact, it’s perhaps one of the more poignant genre films of the year, which already is an impressive feat among such emotional juggernauts as Midsommar and Us. It definitely could use some major expansion in crafting the supporting characters and building the complicated and frustrating relationships that Luke forms with them to a stronger degree, but with the film’s astute pacing and the impressive character work done by the two leads (literally, Schwarzenegger does this Patrick Bateman meets Pennywise schtick that’s genius), Daniel Isn’t Real is the perfect tonal balance of making the affliction of insanity actually feel insane.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital December 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.