Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, one of the true midnight hits of SXSW this year, is a horror film about mental illness, and, for much of its runtime, is pretty damn worthy of its newly-acquired reputation. It begins with a young child named Luke witnessing two traumatic events: A marriage-ending fight between his parents because his schizophrenic mother doesn’t want to return to treatment, and the bullet-ridden corpse of a troubled young man who wandered into a coffee shop with a shotgun and murdered its patrons before being gunned-down himself. In that moment, in that stress, Luke invents the perfect friend, an imaginary pal named Daniel, who would be there for him even when all of the other people in his life would leave him behind. The two go on adventures, have sword fights with brooms, and, one fateful night, nearly kill Luke’s mother by blending up her medication in a smoothie that she drank. This causes Luke to lock Daniel away in his grandmother’s dollhouse, which, much like the ones in every horror film nowadays, is oversized and sits in the corner of his room.
Ten years later, Luke (Miles Robbins) is a lonely, awkward college student, who feels alienated from the party lifestyle so many of those on campus lead, preferring to spend a night in caring for his deteriorating mother at their old home than to do anything social. But one night, his mother has a particularly bad episode, and thinking of all the good times that he had with his friend, he goes to look for the key to the dollhouse. And, sure enough, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) appears, who has aged alongside him, and takes him under his wing. The two have a blast together, with Daniel helping Luke meet girls (including an artist played by American Honey’s Sasha Lane) and have fun, but once Luke gets a bit sick of the lifestyle that Daniel’s picked out for him, the “figment of his imagination” reveals himself to be something a bit more sinister than Luke might have originally guessed.
For the most part, Mortimer does a pretty solid job here, with his brash and flashy style doing a lot to spice up what is, for the most part, a movie we’ve seen plenty of times before. He’s all about disorientation, and that means dimly-lit dutch angles or strobing colored lights (I highly recommend that all photosensitive people avoid this movie, for pretty obvious reasons) rule the day up until things really begin to get weird. This style can get exhausting, especially as the film take its time getting to its center, in particular one early scene where Luke attends a party, complete with blasting strobes that are meant to emphasize his isolation, but wind up just irritating. But when the film gets going, that’s when the excellent Barker-esque transformations and evil creatures come into play, done practically by the film’s VFX team, and they look phenomenal in action, especially during once scene where Daniel “takes over” for Luke, and the two swap places by growing tendrils out of their faces and mushing their bodies together until they’ve replaced one another. There’s a shadowy character ripped out of an renaissance tableau of hell who stalks the frame, and his design is as if a Hieronymus Bosch figure had a makeover done by the team from Nightbreed, and he’s suitably creepy, especially when he’s fully revealed to us near the end of the film.
Yet, even with all of the great effects work, Mortimer’s greatest asset is his cast, all of whom make the emotional core of Daniel Isn’t Real work as well as it does. Robbins, whom most will remember as the stoner kid that Michael Myers straight-up pins to a wall with a knife in David Gordon Green’s Halloween, is given much more to do here than just be goofy and charming: He’s able to find the center of Luke’s pain, whether its witnessing his mother (Masterson gives an excellent performance here in her own right) have an episode and panicking about his own potential mental illness or grappling with his own limiting social anxiety. He plays smartly off Schwarzenegger, who has ample blunt charisma and menace to spare, often with his hair slicked back and a grimace across his face that recalls the genre work of his famous father. Both of them lean into the hearts of darkness that their characters, and the symbiotic bond that they share makes the film something truly special and hard to dismiss, despite its shortcomings.
Some of them nearly cripple the film, especially one particularly egregious fuck-up that happens to be the last plot point we see before the lights come up and the ushers walk the aisles. Plenty of horror films have attempted to dramatize struggles with one’s mental health, some significantly more successful than others (others done so iconically that it’s hard to remove them from the popular consciousness even when the specifics aren’t totally right, much like featherless dinosaurs in Jurassic Park), and for much of its runtime, Daniel Isn’t Real is one of the former.
You really understand how scary it is to lose control of your actions and your foggy mental state to a thing you can’t control, and doubly how terrifying it is to have that built into your DNA through no fault of your own. But the resolution that Mortimer comes to, despite what the film thinks it has done to earn that conclusion narrative-wise, is an offensive and wrong-headed one, and it’s such a shame to see this film fall off a cliff right after it hits the home-stretch. For a while, it looked like Daniel Isn’t Real might be a part of the solution to problematic portrayals of mental illness in horror, and what a shame that it wound up becoming a part of the problem.