Daniel Isn’t Real caused something of a stir at 2019’s FrightFest. Not because it was the colourful, in-your-face gorefest that fellow fest-hit, Bliss was. But because, put simply, Daniel Isn’t Real is so bloody good. Taking in a multitude of horror influences but making them his own, director Adam Egypt Mortimer followed up his cult slasher Some Kind of Hate with another release destined for cult status. Using a promising young cast and a not-often used storyline, Daniel Isn’t Real takes in psychological horror, body horror and a fantasy element to ensure that this isn’t a film you will forget in a hurry.
Using the “evil imaginary friend” idea as its centre point, Daniel Isn’t Real starts as we see Luke (Miles Robbins), a lonely young boy with a mentally unstable mother (Mary Stuart Masterson), trying to get by. As is quite normal for kids his age, Luke seems to create an imaginary friend – Daniel. But Daniel isn’t just an imaginary friend. He is much more sinister and when he manipulates Luke into doing a previously unthinkable act, Luke is able to banish Daniel from his mind and life. But of course, Daniel isn’t fully gone and returns at a critical point in Luke’s life – his college freshman year. Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is now a charming but no less manipulative young man with a dark and terrifying agenda that will push Luke to his limits, physically, emotionally and everything in between.
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With its scarily realistic opening scene set in a coffee shop, Daniel Isn’t Real draws you in from the get-go and doesn’t let up until the end. Those initial scenes in the café, Luke with his mother, and when we meet Daniel for the first time are all pivotal in how we get to know these characters, particularly Luke, as we follow him on his journey and seemingly downward spiral after Daniel’s return. All of these are expertly dealt with by Mortimer as we are assisted in chronicling Luke’s mental health with help from college counsellor, Dr Cornelius (Chuck Iwuji). The longer Daniel is around, the bigger the impact on Luke’s mental health, including potential relationships with fellow student, Sophie (Hannah Marks), and most importantly local artist, Cassie (Sasha Lane), who Luke seems to connect with on an emotional, almost spiritual level. But by this point, Daniel is with Luke every step of the way, his intentions getting darker and those intentions manifesting into Luke’s actions in real life. What actually IS Daniel and why is he here?
These questions get answered in an interestingly dark fashion that absolutely won’t be for everyone, but fans of early Cronenberg and the likes of Hellraiser and 80’s body horror will definitely get a kick out of some of the latter scenes, where Daniel’s true identity starts to get revealed. These scenes are what will divide casual watchers and horror fans, but they are well done and truly seal the deal in terms of the film taking in many influences, showing an element of the fantastical, another world that may bring to mind the likes of the aforementioned Hellraiser. Daniel Isn’t Real is also quite brutal and gory at times, another nod to Mortimer’s influences, but this is never overdone, keeping it in psychological horror territory and not undermining Luke’s journey, but at the same time making sure those brutal moments are as memorable as you’d want from a horror movie.
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Overall, Daniel Isn’t Real triumphs due to its interesting plot, eye-catching scenes of horror, and strong performances from its talented young cast. The chemistry between Miles Robbins’ Luke and Patrick Schwarzenegger’s Daniel works to create a mixture of wonderment, acceptance, fear, terror and dread, and both actors do a great job here. As does Sasha Lane with Cassie; is she going to forge a relationship with this college freshman whose mind appears to be anywhere but where they are? It’s certainly a striking performance as Cassie becomes more involved with Luke/Daniel as the film progresses. Daniel Isn’t Real definitely has cult classic written all over it and is as dark and disturbing as you’d want a pure horror film of this kind to be.
There are some nice extras with this one, including an exclusive audio commentary from director Adam Egypt Mortimer; a video essay on the subjects, themes and influences used in Daniel Isn’t Real; an in depth interview with Adam Egypt Mortimer on the film; a Q&A and interviews from FrightFest; deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. Add in the trailer, a stills gallery and an illustrated collector’s booklet – limited to first pressing only – and you have a more than worthy package from Arrow.
Daniel Isn’t Real is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.