Shudder, AMC’s premiere genre streaming service that has horror, action, thriller, and supernatural offerings has once again scooped up a true gem. After winning Best Feature at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, Best Actor at the Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival, and Best Director at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Daniel Isn’t Real has found a home on Shudder as one of their March exclusives.
Daniel Isn’t Real, directed and co-written by Adam Egypt Mortimer and adapted from Brian DeLeeuw‘s novel In This Way I Was Saved, is a look at how trauma manifests itself when troubled college freshman Luke’s (Miles Robbins) childhood imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is resurrected after a violent family trauma to help him cope. Charismatic and full of manic energy, Daniel helps Luke to achieve his dreams, before pushing him to the very edge of sanity and into a desperate struggle for control. The opening of the film is shocking and emotional. It has violence, death, and we’re dropped into Luke’s world and Daniel’s evil.
With levels of horror and fantasy blending together, Daniel represents a darkness and the dangers of not coping with mental health in a constructive way. Daniel is the part of Luke that is unafraid, charming, outgoing, and truly, everything that Luke is not. When Luke locked Daniel away, he was still creative, but when he brings Daniel back, Luke has lost that spark, opting instead to follow his father’s path.
As Luke embraces Daniel, using him to create a new self, one that isn’t riddled with anxiety, he begins to grow closer to those around him, specifically a girl. But as he grows closer to her, Daniel becomes jealous, the same way he did when they were children. As Luke attempts to separate from Daniel, finding his own strengths and confidence, he pushes him again to be the center of attention, to be the focus of his life. In writing, an other self floating in the air, causing thoughts and emotions is almost ephemeral, This push and pull between the two parts of him is interesting on film. On film, this kind of story needs a corporeal form, which runs the risk of diluting the weight of the main character dancing on the edge of sanity. However, Mortimer executes this well.
By using both actors, their presence and voices, Mortimer easily portrays the fight and the confusion that Luke feels as Daniel asserts himself. In one scene, Luke and his love interest, Cassie (Sasha Lane), are in a bookstore. Provided the lines to books by Daniel, he begins to impress her. Daniel speaks, Luke speaks, parroting words, until he isn’t. As Daniel yells “no god besides me,” Luke says the familiar Nantucket poem and the sharp contrast between firey Bible verse and funny poem begins to unfold the power struggle between the two.
As the film continues, Daniel more clearly becomes Luke’s other self. Luke retreats into Daniel so that Daniel can do the things that he is either too scared of or too moral to do. Visually, this is terrifying, as the effects show bodies morphing into one another. Additionally, the score that backs the action is tense, building in waves as Luke tries to take back his decision. As Luke descends more into Daniel, the film begins to look like a typical horror story where mental illness causes harm and those who suffer do as well. With Daniel throwing remarks at Luke to dissuade him from taking medication, the film begins to feel tropey. That is, until it doesn’t and morphs into something completely different.
I don’t want to spoil the movie but I do want to hammer home how wonderful and disturbing the third act of the film is. The madness of the film is one thing, the lore that unravels in the film’s conclusion is something entirely different and both of them blend into a story that grips you tight. If there is one complaint, it’s that in this third act, some of the scenes become confusing to follow, but that’s expected given its nature. It switches from a thriller about mental illness into something different completely. That said, as the film becomes more fantastical and unhinged, the practical effects shine and I couldn’t look away.
Overall, Daniel Isn’t Real is a shocking force to be reckoned with. The film is disturbing, fantastical, and all-around an hour and 40-minute ride that thrills beyond expectation. The film proves once again that Shudder’s library holds not only classics but new and exciting gems.
Daniel Isn’t Real is now streaming on Shudder.
Daniel Isn't Real
Daniel Isn’t Real is a shocking force to be reckoned with. The film is disturbing, fantastical, and all-around an hour and 40-minute ride that thrills beyond expectation. The film proves once again that Shudder’s library holds not only classics but new and exciting gems.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.