The content coming out of Elijah Wood’s production company SpectreVision is prolific, and boasting a distinct visceral aesthetic – their stable of kinetic horror films is unique and visionary. The previous three titles have been particularly arresting with the two Nicolas Cage-driven movies, Mandy (2018) and Color Out of Space (2019), representing a new brand of horror that is both nostalgic and discerning in equal measure.
SpectreVision’s latest chiller is Daniel Isn’t Real, an allegoric fable that explores themes of mental illness while presenting a surrealistic descent into madness, the likes of which recalls an abandoned brand of horror that once flourished in the 1980s.
The story revolves around a college freshman named Luke (Miles Robbins), who struggles with his personal demons after experiencing mental trauma as a child. In order to cope he created an imaginary friend, Daniel, a mischievous influence with a bad streak who baits him to misbehave.
After the attempted murder of his mother when he was young, Luke forced Daniel out of his head by locking him in a dollhouse, only to release him over a decade later when his life feels out of control. Daniel returns more villainous than ever and sets Luke’s life on a road to ruin. What ensues is a demented and hellish nightmare where reality is distorted and the edge of sanity is one step away…
Utilising a stunning lighting design, the production boasts a colourful neon-drenched aesthetic, where tones of pink and green saturate the screen. Reds and blues also dominate, as does the eerie blanket of smoke, which drapes over the unfolding drama. It’s a deliciously hazy texture that SpectreVision’s aforementioned titles also rely on, and in turn recalls the grotesque horrors of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond. Other influences come to mind as the story evokes the work of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, with its malformed contortions and disturbing body horrors.
Director Adam Egypt Mortimer follows up his debut feature Some Kind of Hate with this impressive exploration of dissociative disorder, and announces himself as potential master-craftsman. Where renegades like Gordon, Cronenberg and Lynch defined an era of cinema with the benefit of a focused medium, Mortimer carries the disadvantage of possessing the same talent in a world of countless platforms, dispersed audiences and short attention spans. Had he made Daniel Isn’t Real alongside those masters, he would be in their company.
Robbins delivers a well-measured performance. His gradual descent into madness is impressive as his whole demeanour transforms throughout the course of the film, and in particular moments when he loses his grip on reality, he delivers a sucker-punch turn that teeters on terrifying. And in the role of Daniel, Patrick Schwarzenegger’s performance is deftly balanced and wholly unpredictable, with some very jarring moments indeed.
The support players include Sasha Lane as Luke’s free-spirited love interest and Mary Stuart Masterson, whose return to the screen is most welcome. Hers is a disturbing turn as Luke’s mentally unstable, and violent, mother.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Daniel Isn’t Real is its blurred lines, because while the parables with mental illness are obvious, there’s never a clear sense of where reality ends and delusion begins. What Luke experiences is harrowing and thoroughly horrific, and like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, the madness real. There are additional tonal likenesses to Clive Barker’s Candyman, and I reference these films to better give you an idea of the level of horror at play.
Films that are this audacious have a tendency to slip through the cracks and it would be a tragedy for moviegoers to miss out. Daniel Isn’t Real is a luscious treat and a frenetic experience, and seeing it once won’t be enough.
Rialto Distribution in association with Fangoria x Monster Fest presents limited sessions of Daniel Isn’t Real in select ACT, NSW & VIC cinemas from Friday, December 13–15. Tickets and session times here.