DANIEL ISN'T REAL
Daniel Isn't Real seems at a loss as to what it wants to be. Is it a psychological thriller? Is it a straight-up horror film? From the looks of it, it wants to be both, which is much to its detriment.
As a child, young Luke has multiple traumas ranging from his parents' marital troubles to seeing the aftereffects of a random shooting. Shortly afterwards, he finds a friend named 'Daniel'. 'Daniel' is an imaginary friend, and Luke's mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) plays along with this for a while. 'Daniel' then suggests to Luke to put in all her medication in a blender for her to drink, almost killing her. After blaming Daniel, she orders him to be locked up in his grandmother's dollhouse.
Now a sullen college student, Luke (Miles Robbin) is finding life a struggle, particularly as Claire is having her own mental health issues. Struggling with life, he finds that perhaps he could use a friend. Enter again Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), now fully-grown. Daniel now serves as Luke's otherworldly life coach, helping him get not one but two girls: artist Cassie (Sasha Lane) and psychology student Sophie (Hannah Marks).
It isn't long however, before Daniel becomes more malevolent. Luke becomes terrified that Daniel was the force that drove John Thigpen, the shooter he witnessed as a child, to kill. With Daniel around, Luke fears he too will do something dangerous. This requires more than medication. It requires Tibetan singing bowls and other supernatural elements brought by Dr. Braun (Chukwudi Iwuji), the school's psychiatrist.
Daniel, however, won't go without a fight, leading to a battle for Luke's mind and soul with shocking conclusions for both Luke and Daniel.
Perhaps a good way to describe Daniel Isn't Real would be A Beautiful Mind as a horror film. As I watched, many other films popped into my mind. I saw a bit of, of all things, Jumanji with the 'child' returning as an adult whose return causes all sorts of chaos. There's Drop Dead Fred with the imaginary friend causing chaos to the adult who once played with him/her. I also thought of another horror film, The Sentinel, only without the laughs intentional or not.
Director Adam Egypt Mortimer, adapting the screenplay with Brian DeLeeuw from DeLeeuw's novel In This Way I Was Saved, does have a strong visual style when not going for traditional horror imagery of spooky houses and red-lit rooms. Composer 'Clark' (Christopher Steven Clark's nom de musique) created extremely well-crafted music, creepy without resorting too much to long violin notes.
Mortimer also brought some strong performances from his cast.
Of particular note is Lane as Sasha, the struggling artist who catches Luke's eye. While her last scene as she attempts to ward off a possessed Luke was perhaps her weakest, for the most part she played the part realistically as a woman unaware of the evil around her.
Robbins too was strong in that he had to play a variety of emotions: confused to cocky, forlorn to possessed. He plays Luke as someone who, from what I understood, is simultaneously schizophrenic and demon-possessed. Masterson, though her role was brief, seemed to be the only one unaware she was in a horror film. Her performance was more dramatic as a woman who ends up in a mental hospital herself, with no help from Daniel.
I think I can cut Schwarzenegger some slack in that he is starting out his own career, but his Daniel is actually one of the weaker aspects of Daniel Isn't Real. It's almost as if he prepared for the role by watching Christian Bale in American Psycho and deciding that was what he was going to do. There's no subtlety to how Schwarzenegger plays him: he's obviously so overtly creepy even before he takes Luke's body that it's almost hilarious.
My biggest issue with Daniel Isn't Real is in the actual nature of the title character. It's as if the film couldn't decide whether Luke is truly mentally troubled or demonically possessed. As such, it appears they went for both, which is wrong on so many levels. The film basically says that Daniel is some form of demonic force: he apparently possessed the shooter in the beginning of the film and transferred over to Luke with the expectation he'd transfer to a new body when finished with Luke.
The film never seemed to have settled on what exactly Daniel was: a manifestation of Luke's mind or a literal demonic force. Sometimes it goes one way, sometimes another. From what I saw Daniel Isn't Real leads to finally ending on the latter, but that leads to another set of problems with Luke's end. Without giving too much away, his ending is a shockingly poor way to suggest someone with mental health issues resolve his/her situation.
Daniel Isn't Real has some positives: an excellent score, a visual style that I think will please horror fans and some good performances from Robbins and Lane. My issue is that the film apparently wanted to be both on mental illness and demonic possession. Somehow, I think society has long ago decided they were not connected.