In the aftermath of a shooting, Luke develops an imaginary friend called Daniel. However, he’s forced by his mother to ‘trap’ him in a model house and let him go. But in college, trying to cope with family issues, Luke sets Daniel free…
The simplistic response to Daniel Isn’t Real would be to say it’s the horror equivalent of 1991’s Drop Dead Fred. To a degree it’s slightly fair, as on the surface there are some slight similarities, but only slightly, as that’s where it ends. Because Daniel Isn’t Real is something else entirely.
When we meet Luke as an adult, his relationship with his mother, who has mental health issues is what ultimately causes Luke to free Daniel. And for a good portion of the film, you do wonder if Luke has similar issues to those of his mother. But as the story progresses and Luke gains confidence, it slowly becomes clear that perhaps Daniel isn’t what Luke, or the audience for that matter, thinks he is.
The changes in Luke, becoming more confident, beginning sexual relationships with Cassie, an artist, also another relationship with Sophie a girl he meets at a party might be good for him, but you can see the jealousy build in Daniel, he wants to experience the same thing. When he takes Daniel over, the film becomes a battle of wills as we discover the truth about Daniel and what he is and where he comes from.
The film is written by Brian DeLeeuw (based on his novel) and Adam Egypt Mortimer, who also directs. The story really delves into the relationship between Luke and Daniel, but also between Luke and his mother. It gives the characters time to develop as the story takes a turn from being one that was about mental health into more horror territory. The film does take some turns, that some might see coming, some may not, but they never feel forced and work well in the narrative.
When it does head into the horror aspects of the tale, it is definitely unsettling, if never truly scary as we discover the truth, not only about Daniel but also what he wants. The battle of will that develops, is one where Luke will have to find strengths he didn’t know he had.
Mortimer directs the film very well, as I said he lets the characters and relationships develop without feeling forced. What violence there is, is done very well indeed. Perhaps the only slight flaw are the sequences with Luke in another place. While I felt there was a Lovecraft influence there, I think they could have pushed this aspect more.
The cast are great. Patrick Schwarzenegger (Arnie’s son!) plays Daniel and is very good at bringing out the character’s confidence, desires, with a hint of violence always lurking in the background. Miles Robbins plays Luke, who’s character develops as Daniel’s influence becomes stronger. He too is very good.
Mary Stuart Masterson plays Luke’s mother and while having limited screen time does well with the role. Sasha Lane as Cassie and Hannah Marks as Sophie do good work with their characters too.
Because of the mental health aspect of the story, there will be those who may be a bit uncomfortable with combining it the way it does in a horror film. But to be fair to the film, it always plays those aspects completely straight, treating them as serious as the film should.
I was quite taken with Daniel Isn’t Real. It’s a well acted, compelling film, that builds to a satisfying conclusion. As I said, it’s not scary but it unsettling.
And certainly worth watching.
Rating: **** out of 5