Review: Daniel Isn’t Real

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PLOT: Luke, a young boy with a troubled home life, invents an imaginary friend named Daniel, but when he almost poisons his mother, Daniel is sent back to his imaginary world to await the day he’ll once again be needed. When the now-grown Luke (Miles Robbins) enters college, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) returns with a vengeance.

REVIEW: DANIEL ISN’T REAL is definitely a nifty little indie horror sleeper. Slated to make its debut on Shudder after a theatrical run, this seems primed to stand out as a discovery on the up and coming streamer, proving Netflix and Amazon aren’t the only ones to invest in quality original films for their platforms. DANIEL ISN’T REAL, while not unfamiliar as far as the plot goes, is a well-acted, stylish entry for director Adam Egypt Mortimer, and another solid programmer from Elijah Wood’s production shingle, SpectreVision.

Miles Robbins is a likable protagonist, being the troubled son of a schizophrenic mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) and a mass-shooter father. Despite his troubled upbringing, he initially seems relatively well adjusted, even if he suffers from a lack of confidence or ambition. Enter Daniel, his smooth-talking, alpha male imaginary bestie, who emerges from his subconscious to initially help him get girls and develop some of his repressed talents, including photography.

Up to this point, DANIEL ISN’T REAL almost comes off as a dark version of DROP DEAD FRED, with shades of FIGHT CLUB, but about midway through the movie takes a hard detour into horror, with Daniel shown to be able to take over Miles’s body at will making his host as much of a prisoner of his own psyche as Daniel once was.

Robbins is excellent as the low-key hero, but this is certainly a game-changer for young Patrick Schwarzenegger, who, it must be said, has grown to be the spitting image of his megastar dad. A slick, smooth-talking ladies man, Schwarzenegger shows major chops as the initially likable Daniel, whose eventual metamorphosis brings to mind Rutger Hauer’s chilling performance in THE HITCHER. This is a bit of a calling card part for the young actor, who makes a major case for himself as a star of the future here, and despite stylish directing, I’m not sure the film would have worked as well as it does without his compelling performance.

The supporting cast is also high-grade, with Masterson impressive after a long absence in a small but memorable role, while Sasha Lane is a breath of fresh air as a well-rounded love interest with some genuine agency of her own. The score by Chris Clark is memorable in that signature SpectreVision retro way, as is the neon-lit cinematography (I find it cool they seem to have developed a real house style, like the film factories of old).

DANIEL ISN’T REAL probably weighs heavier on the psychological thriller side of the horror divide, but when the second half of the film hits there’s some memorable gore, especially insofar as the way Daniel climbs in and out of Luke’s body. The film also ends with a surprisingly strong, HIGHLANDER-esque sword fight between the two protagonists, which is not where I saw this going but winds up being very effective. All told, this is a solid little indie horror gem and well worth checking out once it hits Shudder, which continues its run as THE place for horror aficionados.

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