Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Daniel Isn't Real (2019)

Adam Egypt Mortimer made his feature debut in 2015 with a film called Some Kind of Hate. I remember not only really liking Some Kind of Hate but watching it twice upon release. Thus, I was appropriately excited to see his sophomore venture. Five years on, I recall little about Some Kind of Hate, other than it being a character-driven horror flick about self-hating teenagers and a self-hating ghost. I can assure you that Daniel Isn’t Real won’t be so easily forgotten.

In anticipation of my viewing of Daniel Isn’t Real at FilmQuest, (a little genre film festival in Provo Utah that punches well above its weight class), I had planned on re-watching Some Kind of Hate. -- I didn’t. -- I don’t necessarily feel bad about it, though it’s probably the true overlooked film of this article. Regardless, Mortimer himself has said that Some Kind of Hate didn’t meet his vision, which is a shame. Some Kind of Hate was already an excellent film and after seeing Daniel, I can only imagine what the end product might have been.

That said, part of me still wanted to rewatch Mortimer’s debut feature in anticipation of re-watching Daniel Isn’t Real at Beyond Fest. When push came to shove, I was so enthralled with the first viewing, that when seeing this a second time, I only wanted to further immerse myself into this film. The visuals, acting, and frenetic editing almost cast a spell, and the end result is mesmerizing.

Instead of digging deeper into Mortimer’s filmography, I instead committed to further immersing myself in the world of Daniel Isn’t Real. My first step was to begin reading the book that this is based off. “In This Way I Was Saved” is the debut novel from Brian DeLeeuw, co-writer of this film, Some Kind of Hate, and a handful of other screenplays and novels. I haven’t quite finished it yet, so I’m going to withhold comment, but I can say that DeLeeuw’s writing is phenomenal, and I can see how Mortimer found the book worthy of adaptation.

Both the novel and the film tell the tale of Luke Nightingale (played by Miles Robbins, best known for his appearance in Blockers) and his imaginary friend Daniel (played absolutely amazingly by Patrick Schwarzenegger). Luke manifests Daniel in his childhood as a coping mechanism to deal with neglect and trauma. However, when his childhood relationship with Daniel becomes unhealthy, he’s forced to lock the figment away in a dollhouse, to be forgotten for the next 12 years.

The film focuses on the reemergence of Daniel in response to Luke’s struggle with the pressure of college. The imaginary friend, invisible to all but Luke, helps him develop social skills and cope with the circumstances of his life. Though initially, his presence improves Luke’s life drastically, it quickly becomes clear that Daniel has ulterior motives.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a film defined by the quality of its performances. Robbins and Schwarzenegger make a perfect pair. Robbins portrays Luke as shy, unconfident, and all-around doofy. He’s unfashionable, untalented, and outwardly disinteresting. We see it through his tense body language, and through his drab costuming, especially when compared to Daniel. It’s an excellent and difficult performance, that’s made all the better as his character goes through a downward spiral, where Robbins really shows an impressive range.

While Robbins’ portrayal of Luke is great, it’s Schwarzenegger’s role as Daniel that steals the show. His character is a slick mix of Patrick Bateman and Tyler Durden. He swaggers around in gaudy outfits -- lamé dress shirts, vibrant faux leather, mesh t-shirts. Other times he appears shirtless, and he is pure eye candy. He’s the opposite of Luke; confident, handsome, smooth, while also being arrogant and impetuous. Schwarzenegger’s performance feels incredibly natural, whether he’s lounging in a bathtub, goading Luke to prank his roommate, or engaging in more nefarious plots. It’s worth seeing the film for his role alone.

What follows is a tense and uncomfortable journey as Daniel works to become a real boy and Luke tries to stop him. In doing so, he builds a relationship with a struggling artist, Cassie (Sasha Lane), and Daniel coaxes him into another relationship with Sophie (Hannah Marks). This goes as poorly as expected and sets Luke careening into a fight for his own mental health, his love, and ultimately his life.

I don’t want to spoil too much about this one. What I’ll say is that I enjoyed it thoroughly both times. There are some sequences that surprised me and hit hard during the first viewing, and I want everyone to experience them as I did. What’s great, however, is that they played well on second viewing too, and I never felt any less interested the second time around.

I’ll also say that this film goes to crazy places. The imagery is at times reminiscent of Gaspar Noe, or perhaps Argento, but it also evokes Cronenberg and undeniably draws inspiration from Bergman’s Persona (but what doesn’t). It has a sex scene that I found extremely uncomfortable. It has gruesome and unexpected body horror that echoes the best of Cronenberg. It sends Luke on a descent into madness where Robbins gets to show off his acting range. We get to see both supporting actresses be badasses in their own way, especially Cassie, who gets an opportunity to kick some ass. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the production design courtesy of Kaet McAnneny (Blue Ruin). While the location scouts nailed the Brooklyn setting for the (relatively few) exteriors we see, the sets of this movie really shine. Luke’s mother lives in a beautiful Victorian brownstone, Cassie lives in the hipstery-est artist loft imaginable (how she pays rent is beyond me), there’s even a scene set in a series of steam tunnels that feel filthy and infested in the best way.

Last, but certainly not least, there are some fantastic creature effects supplied by Martin Astles, who’s best known (at least, among horror nerds) for his work on Event Horizon (but also The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Greasy Strangler, the three of which make a weird triple feature). Astles’ work is top-notch, and the gooey, grotesque creatures and makeup we see are some of my favorites of the year. This might be a spoiler, but it involves a few sequences that necessitated Schwarzenegger spending 7 hours having makeup applied. 

One element of Daniel Isn’t Real that makes it a joy is the fact that Mortimer put a ton of love into this movie, and it shows. Not only that, but it’s clearly a passion project that’s also a great movie, which at times can be a rare combination. It explores mental illness in a way that feels painful, personal, and loving.

This really came through in the Q&A he did at BeyondFest. He printed and brought his own T-shirts to give away, answered a bunch of questions in a ton of detail (seventeen if I remember correctly, one for each shirt). He even got playfully heckled by Kevin Kolsch, director of Starry Eyes and Pet Sematary (2019), which, for me, felt like horror geek Christmas (which is I think is technically just Halloween).

Mortimer is proving to be a phenomenal director, and I’m thrilled to see what he does next. Not only that, but the film's production company SpectreVision is proving to be a real threat. Between this, Mandy, and Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, and some of their past releases like Cooties, Toad Road, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and The Greasy Strangler, Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah have shown that they really understand what genre fans want. 

This one’s slated for release in theaters and VOD on December 6th. If you get a chance, catch this on the big screen with a crowd. Although I’m sure it’ll view fine on VOD, some of the scares play great in a theater, and the effects are beautiful enough to merit it. 

-Listener Sam

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