Horror with evil children is a very specific subgenre that can be extremely creepy and frightening or it can miss the mark. That said, the evil child or child with an evil imaginary friend is a well-established trope, and Z, from writer-director Brandon Christensen, leans into it from the beginning and uses horror fan assumptions to get the most out of the tension building. But while creepy kids are one axis that this film operates on, its really the maternal horror of it all that makes it stand out.
The film, a Shudder Exclusive starring Keegan Connor Tracy, Sean Rogerson, Jett Klyne, Sara Canning and Stephen McHattie, is the story of Elizabeth, a young mother who begins to fear her introverted son’s imaginary friend, Z, may be terrifyingly real and not as much a stranger as she first thought.
Now, Christensen is no stranger to maternal horror, but this one is much different than Still/Born, which premiered on Shudder for Mother’s Day 2018. There is an understanding throughout Z that the scariest thing is not the titularly named imaginary friend, but Elizabeth’s (Connor Tracy) inability to understand what is happening or help her child. As Joshua (Klyne) is removed from school, talks about hurting animals, and loses friends, Elizabeth bears the weight of everything. She carries fear and guilt in her to the point that she begins to fear she is projecting them onto her son. While this all fuels the film’s thrilling moments as Christensen creates doubt in the viewer’s mind as much as Elizabeth’s, it’s another theme that builds the emotional weight of the film – Elizabeth’s realization that this evil is inherited.
For Elizabeth, watching her own experiences be passed to her son is not only nerve-wracking but terrifying. While I’m not a mother and have no intention of being one, this overarching theme hit me hard because of how it relates to fears my mother had. She worried about giving me her health issues, my family’s issues, both physical and mental which meant when I began experiencing depression, and more it hit her like a truck.
I didn’t understand it then but that fear of passing along the parts of your struggle is as real a parental fear as losing their child in a shopping market. For my mother, she could teach me to work hard and to prepare for a world that would treat me differently based on my gender and skin color. But she didn’t know how to save me from depression, anxiety, and the control disorders that would eat away at me for years. This is the maternal fear that Z uses to not only build a connection between you and Elizabeth but to make you question your own fears of family and inheritance.
In Z, Elizabeth’s realization only intensifies her helplessness. As a mother, it’s her job to protect Joshua, to save him, to calm him, but she can’t do that. Throw in the fact that her husband doesn’t take any of her accounts with a serious face, to the point of mocking her as she begins to see Z manifest and it’s the making for a maternal horror that isn’t groundbreaking, but it is poignant. The film hits much of the expected notes for the genre which may leave viewers wanting more at first. Then, the angle switches to focus squarely on Elizabeth instead of her creepy son and his imaginary friend, making the back half of the film infinitely more interesting that the beginning.
In addition to a story that shows the lengths that a mother will go to protect her son and how she internalizes his pain and more, Z offers up solid frights. While a lot of them can be considered jump scares, there a few key moments in the film that push you back in your chair. These are often done with events happening in the background as characters interact in the foreground, relying on screams and your imagination to imagine the outcomes. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments where the reliance is a surprise from a scary figure in the dark, but Christensen balances these with slower burning moments. Moments pushed from the mind of a child as an image on the wall or a mother terrified by history repeating.
Overall, Z is a film the brings maternal fears to the forefront while hitting the usual beats of creepy children films all before turning the script on its head all while Connor Tracy delivers a stellar and emotive performance. With Mother’s Day 2020 coming during a scary time, why not pick up a little maternal horror for the day.
Z is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.
Z is a film the brings maternal fears to the forefront while hitting the usual beats of creepy children films all before turning the script on its head all while Connor Tracy delivers a stellar and emotive performance.
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.