Daniel Isn't Real (2 stars)

Daniel Isn't Real

Hyper-stylised but largely hollow horror from Adam Egypt Mortimer

Adapted from the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, who co-writes the screenplay with director Adam Egypt Mortimer, Daniel Isn't Real centres on Luke (Miles Robbins) who, as a child, sought refuge from a volatile home environment in his imaginary friend, Daniel. When Miles grows into a deeply troubled adult, Daniel (now morphed into the slick-haired Patrick Schwarzenegger) returns to help him cope with his schizophrenic mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) and woo fellow college student Cassie (Sasha Lane). As Daniel grows stronger, however, his true intention becomes clear: he wishes to possess Luke entirely.

While the film flirts with ideas of mental illness, religious possession and ancient supernatural forces – and, in doing so, wears myriad influences from The Exorcist and Jacob's Ladder to Donnie Darko and Fight Club prominently on its sleeve – none are explored in any depth beyond their ability to produce a scare. And the gooey, nightmarish visual effects work, by VFX supervisor George Loucas and creature designer Martin Astles, is indeed excellent, as is the prowling cinematography from Lyle Vincent, which often catches Daniel lurking on the edge of a frame, and the intense score from composer Clark.

Yet it's all an exercise in style over substance. In fact, for all the pretensions of subversion and extremism suggested by those hyper-stylised visuals, Daniel Isn't Real is, in truth, a film that relies heavily on convention and cliche, something that's particularly obvious in its marginalising treatment of non-white-male characters.

Cassie, for example, is the manic pixie art student who exists only to give Luke the motivation to stand up to Daniel; Claire, the hysterical mother whose negligence has damaged her son beyond repair. The only other woman of note, supposed 'bad-girl' student Sophie (Hannah Marks), is subjected to aggressively selfish sex by Daniel masquerading as Luke. And Luke's African-American psychologist, Dr Braun (Chukwudi Iwuji), bestows his 'non-Western' treatment by means of a Tibetan singing bowl, incantations and a dagger.

Admittedly, Luke and Daniel don't fare much better. Despite the frenzied world they inhabit, they are both broad-stroke sketches of familiar figures: the former a tortured man lost in his own head, the latter a domineering personification of toxic masculinity. And neither exists outside of his all-consuming struggle with the other – which would be fine if they were both a damn sight more interesting.

Selected release from Fri 7 Feb.

Daniel Isn't Real

  • 2 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 36min
  • Directed by: Adam Egypt Mortimer
  • Cast: Andrew Ayala, Andrew Bridges, Katie Chang

Luke (Robbins) is a child who had an imaginary friend, Daniel (Schwarzenegger), who returns when Miles is an adult to possess him. The VFX work and cinematography are excellent, but it’s less than the sum of its influences, the characterisation is weak and it’s not particularly scary.