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Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
Written by Adam Egypt Mortimer & Brian DeLeeuw
Starring Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie, Andrew Bridges, Griffin Robert Faulkner, Nathan Chandler Reid, Daniel Marconi, Chase Sui Wonders, Rosanne Ma, Michael Cuomo, Cara Ronzetti

Adam Egypt Mortimer, director of SOME KIND OF HATE and a section of HOLIDAYS, returns with a psychological roundhouse that is derivative as it is entertaining. While there were moments that resemble what might come from an unholy union of JACOB’S LADDER, FIGHT CLUB, and RIGHT SAID FRED, DANIEL ISN’T REAL still manages to entertain and highlight that Mortimer has what it takes to make a mood, suspenseful thriller.

Miles Robbins (aka the asshole boyfriend from HALLOWEEN) plays Luke, the victim of a troubled childhood full of neglect and mental illness. Shortly after a young Luke stumbles across a crime scene, he discovers an imaginary friend following him around. Naming his new friend Daniel, Luke is over the moon and the two get into adventure after adventure together. But when a prank on his mom backfires, Luke decides to vanquish Daniel, banishing him inside a dollhouse. Flash forward to Luke in college and he is struggling with trying to fit in, find a purpose, and deal with his mother’s declining mental health. When his therapist urges Luke to revisit his time with Daniel, Luke reawakens the imaginary friend now in adult form (Patrick Swartzenegger). Though the two begin their friendship right where they left off, boyhood fantasies turn into real adult problems and Daniel’s wild side begins having deadly ramifications on Luke’s life. Soon the two begin a desperate fight over Luke’s body and soul.

What DANIEL ISN’T REAL gets right is the mental illness aspect that permeates the entire story. This is a expertly crafted story about the disintegration of a human mind, the fears of inheriting mental illness, and theorizes as to where mental illness comes from. All supernatural elements aside, I loved the therapy scenes where Luke fears he will become as mentally ill as his mother has become. Those who read my reviews know that I have a background in counseling and psychology. I’ve worked with people suffering from schizophrenia and Mortimer gets these scenes right. This doesn’t feel like psycho-babble watered down and presented in a glamorized Hollywood lens. This film did its homework and lays out a terrifying view of mental illness with an unflinching touch. It doesn’t fetishize mental illness. It shows all of the ugly details that affect people suffering from mental illness.

The cinematography and lighting of DANIEL ISN’T REAL should be mentioned. This is a dark and moody looking film. Full of saturated reds and blues that reflect the mood of the scene. The entire film seems to be made with deep shadows and overpowering black voids. It gives a sort of nihilistic and hopeless vibe to the entire film, much like the anarchist viewpoints of the Daniel himself. This is a good looking and more importantly, visually effective film that will take you to dark places and stomp your brain in.

While it is evident from the start, there is a supernatural aspect to this film. Unfortunately, all of this is not simply taking part in Luke’s head. I didn’t mind these details, but I feel that the film doesn’t really need it. It does such a bang-up job strictly in the realm of psychological horror that I think the supernatural slant is unneeded. Still, DANIEL ISN’T REAL is a true standout in horror. Mortimer definitely pulls no punches and delivers a very gritty film. The violence has reverberations and consequences. This character study takes its horror seriously, just how us horror fans like it! Arnie’s son Patrick is charismatic and threatening, yet still has that Eric Trump smarm that makes him instantly dislikable. Miles Robbins is strong too as the film rests on his shoulders despite the fact that we are doubting any of this is real or not. This film requires the two actors to go to dark places and both achieve this deftly.

It is rumored that Mortimer is in the long list of names to take on the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot. I’d be all for it. This film looks like a living nightmare and I think given a bigger budget, the filmmaker is destined for great things. As is, DANIEL ISN’T REAL is a dark and potent pill that peels back the layers of sanity and shows us the pain and despair of mental illness. Don’t miss this spectacular horror film.