As a young boy, Luke Nightingale leaned on his imaginary friend, Daniel, to help him through a tough time. But when Daniel’s jealousy poked through, convincing Luke to poison his mother, it was time to for Luke to lock his pal away in recesses of his mind. At least until he needs him again later in life. Think Drop Dead Fred, only mean and way more psychedelic and you have a good start on what Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real is all about.
After locking away his imaginary friend, Luke (Miles Robbins, Blockers) finds himself in college, where he’s having a shitty time. His roommate sucks, he’s lonely and has no friends, and his mentally unstable mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) has her own breakdown. At the behest of his therapist, Luke tries to get in touch with a youthful, imaginative part of himself that’s both literally and metaphorically been pushed aside. Ta da, here comes Daniel, who has grown up to become Patrick Schwarzenegger.
Like before, everything starts out great. Daniel pushes Luke to take chances and come out of his shell, to help his mother, to talk girls at dimly lit raves, and make a connection with rebellious artist Cassie (Sasha Lane, Hearts Beat Loud). He’s basically an imaginary wingman. But also like before, things take a sinister turn as Daniel becomes jealous and begins to take over. Things get real crazy as Luke realizes he’s unleashed something dark, and he has a time.
Based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, who co-wrote the script with Mortimer, there’s a serious Jacob’s Ladder vibe to Daniel Isn’t Real. The film wrestles with issues of self and identity, touches on mental health—is Daniel real or is Luke coming unraveled and losing his mind? What’s real? What isn’t? These questions lie at the core of the narrative.
Robbins gives Luke an earnest empathy. He’s just trying to cope and survive, but at what point does your survival mechanism ultimately destroy you? Schwarzenegger is charming and charismatic, helping Luke cheat on tests and let loose in social situations, only to become unhinged, vicious, and terrifying. Nothing is quite as scary as what’s in your head and the idea that what terrorizes you most is an indelible, inescapable part of who you are.
The surrounding aesthetic only enhances the deranged sensation. Gritty and lo-fi, red and blue lights flash through dark scenes creating hallucinatory unease. Unsettling imagery fills unusually canted frames. Mortimer and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Thoroughbreds) use door and window frames and reflections in mirrors and panes of glass to heighten the sensation of duality and of being trapped. The score mixes old school thriller strings with droning ‘80s horror synthesizers. It crafts an off kilter, unnerving portrait, instilling the audience with the same uneasy sensation Luke feels.
Horror as a metaphor for mental illness is nothing new, but Daniel Isn’t Real pushes the idea in unexpected directions. The end may not work for everyone, but it takes a big chance, and the tone, performances, and overall mood should be more than enough to sate those looking for a dark, strange nightmare of a horror film. [Grade: B+]