The deliciously twisty psycho-thriller developed from the novel by Brian DeLeeuw is a fresh take on the imaginary friend trope. BIG SPOILERS AHEAD
From SpectreVision, the same people who brought you the psychodelic head trip Mandy, Daniel Isn’t Real delights with killer performances and intense questions. Are we responsible for those we associate with? Are we doomed to genetic predestination? Are we as bad as the worst parts of ourselves? If Tyler Durden was smarter and even more of a dick, Daniel is what you would get. A spin on the idea that just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, Daniel Isn’t Real leads the viewer down a path of miscues, false starts, and bad behavior that will leave you questioning what is real.
The story of a fragile mind who may be in the process of being possessed by a demon, Daniel shows just how slippery the slope can be. Luke is forced to return home when his unstable mother takes a turn for the worse. Once there he makes the fatal mistake of unleashing his literal or figurative demons and his imaginary friend prompts a slow fall from grace. What begins as a life full of promise takes a tragic turn. An innocent transgression here and there becomes more sinister as Luke loses his grip on reality.
It’s a clever misdirect by Adam Egypt Mortimer who fools the viewer into thinking early on that Luke is mentally ill. A simple imaginary friend who is the darkest side of Luke, but nothing more. There is no supernatural being, no evil with a capital E just a poor boy with a genetic predilection to schizophrenia. It is essentially a coming of age story. Instead of learning to navigate the tricky waters of adulthood, it is learning to cope with impending mental illness, or something much much worse.
Well acted with stand out performances by Miles Robbins(Luke), Patrick Schwarzenegger(Daniel). Robbins and Schwarzenegger do all the heavy lifting as the dynamic duo. Schwarzenegger’s Daniel is slick depravity. Just the right amount of oily charm to put you on edge, but not enough to outright hate him. He has mentioned his inspiration for this role was Nic Cage in Mandy. While Cage’s style is balls-out all the time and Schwarzenegger’s is more nuanced the influence can be seen in small moments like his creative cheating session and the high octane conclusion.
Luke is the face of guilt, depression, and intense fear of self. Robbin’s full commitment to unabashed emotional vulnerability is what makes this film work. He is vulnerable and sweet. The perfect gentle-hearted boy next door. Without Robbin’s likability and believability, Daniel would not read as subtle as he does in the beginning. This allowed for nice pacing and a building of tension that served the last third of the movie very well.
Cinematography by Lyle Vincent is heavy on color saturation and grittiness. He has a way of capturing the griminess of the city and Luke’s apartment that makes the fifth palpable. Reflection shots are used liberally to bombard the viewer with duality. Interesting use of color uses golden hues for Daniel’s Mom’s apartment and blue filters for the outside world.. Despite the chaos and mess, his apartment feels safe and isolated while outside feels cold and unfeeling. Until he meets Cassie, that is. Her apartment is sunshine and light and she herself wears a fair amount of blue throughout the film marking a shift in perspective and tone.
The Clues Early On
Daniel and Luke meet on a terrible day. Or rather Daniel attaches himself to Luke when his previous host dies. Evil looks for the most vulnerable and Luke is a lonely soft target. The film opens on an unknown shooter killing a coffee shop full of patrons before being shot by police. Luke stumbles upon the scene and Daniel hitches a ride. What begins as play-acting turns into a murder attempt as the two boys become closer. Amazing origami hides darker instincts like poisoning. Luke locks Daniel in the dollhouse as a direct result of his unsuccessful murder attempt of his Mom.
The play-acting itself, mostly sword fighting, foreshadows the final scene on the roof as well as the intense mind palace Daniel and Luke find themselves in at different points in the film. In addition, it is heavily implied Daniel may be able to influence those who are mentally unstable. When Luke’s Mom has a breakdown and smashes up the place he is in the bathtub with Luke’s Mom before Luke arrives. Who knows what he had been whispering to her to make her lose it?
Ignore all the subterfuge. Luke suffers from mental issues, sure, but he is not schizophrenic like his mother, just traumatized by a lifetime with her. Luke mentions taking photos as a way to feel empathy for them. This isn’t a sign he’s a sociopath, but a kind kid who longs for human connection. The photograph of Luke when Daniel takes over in the steam tunnel is only the face Daniel chooses to present. When Daniel and Luke morphed in a deeply unsettling scene, Daniel assumed the leadership role for good. He became the more dominant member of the relationship and could come and go as he pleased from there on out.
The Abyss is both a place, a concept, and a person. When Luke gets locked in the Castle, he meets a monster who refers to himself as the Abyss. He is what happens when the human partner, Luke, in this case, loses control. The gunman at the beginning of the movie gave into Daniel’s dark urges and allowed him to kill everyone in the coffee shop. The more time he spent in the castle the more monstrous he became until he lost all humanity.
Daniel had been haunting the gunman for years according to his father. His drawings of a spiky-headed demon with a red suit committing violent acts echo what Luke is now seeing. The realization that the Abyss is what happens when you give up control is the catalyst for Luke’s escape from the castle. He wants to save Cassie and avoid being a part of the Abyss. All of the other monsters imprisoned are previous victims of Daniels, who he had perverted for his own pleasure and left to devolve. This is also foreshadowed in the steam tunnel scene when Daniel first takes control. The imagery as the two men melt together and then pull apart is very similar to the demons in the castle.
What Is The Castle?
The Castle is any mind construct that can hold us. It is a dollhouse, a jail, or Hell. The dollhouse is the first representation of this prison. With flashing red and gold lights it is an overt reminder of the evil it holds. Later in the film, Luke tries to put Daniel back into his cage, but Daniel is the more dominant entity at that point and did not have the support of his mother. Without the upper hand, it is Luke who ends up imprisoned. It is a mental jail. Daniel alludes to this during his conversation about William Blake. Blake was a poet, painter, and engraver during the 1800s. He wrote and painted many works detailing Heaven and Hell. The Castle for this purpose is purgatory. The limbo Dante refers to as a holding place for those who are unable or unwilling to move on to another location.
In the Castle are there is a room with a painting reminiscent of Fall Of The Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel. This depiction of the End of Day as told by the book of Revelations in the Bible is a disturbing reminder of what Daniel represents. He is the worst of humanity capable of great cruelty and destruction. This painting has been the inspiration for subtle inferences like this film and more grotesque displays like the recording scene in the sci-fi horror classic Event Horizon.
What Happened To Luke?
Luke essentially lost control of the wild animal in his midst. The Devil’s best trick is deception. Early on, Daniel convinces Luke he needs him. He needs him for happiness, security, and success. His confidence increases with Cassie and as a result, Daniel enticed Luke with drugs, alcohol, and other women all designed to drive him away from her. When that succeeds, Daniel asserts his authority and the disastrous final act plays out. In easily the coolest and most brutal possession scene I have ever witnessed, Daniel dives into his host’s body and kills Luke’s therapist. All while Luke’s tears remain on the face Daniel now controls.
Whether his own loneliness or Daniel got him, the result is the same, suicide. Luke was able to go out on his own terms saving those he loved and hopefully preventing Daniel from doing any more damage. The final shot from the castle shows unfortunately, daniel is just waiting for his next victim.
Of Angels and Demons
If Daniel is a demon, Cassie is an angel. Daniel is the literal Devil on Luke’s shoulder guiding and sometimes goading him into trouble. Cassie is the chaotic but kind artist who’s sympathetic soul sees the evil swirling around Luke even if she doesn’t realize it right away. Daniel understands she is a guiding force that will draw Luke away from him and give him power. That is a major problem for someone who needs complete reliance.
At the beginning of their relationship, Cassie paints Luke with blue spikes in his shadow. That is a physical manifestation of Daniel wanting control. “We deserve to be immortalized” he says as she paints Luke. Luke says “I” because at this point he is in control of Daniel and doesn’t realize the danger he is in. Like any malevolent God, Daniel views himself as the superior being and wants to gain control and get all the glory.
Daniel is a demon, who views himself as a God. This is why he is so angry when Luke refuses to continue to play along in the bookstore. Having Luke rebel and joke as Exodus is being read is a nod to the power Daniel craves.
What Is a Tibetan Singing Bowl?
These bowls are instruments of meditation and enlightenment that date back as far as 560 – 480 B.C. The religious and philosophical devices were brought from India to Tibet by the tantric master Padmasambhava in the 8th century AD. Dagger is able to pierce delusions. Most practitioners believe these bowls can help with stress relief and greater contentment. They also have been used to vanquish evil spirits. This did not work out very well for the therapist who got more than the bargained for in Daniel.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a mindbender that deliberately tricks the viewer from the title screen. It is a compelling take on good and evil. There are more than enough quality components to make it a must-watch for lovers of several subgenres. Thoughtful and visually attractive it forces hard self-reflection. Sometimes when you stare into the abyss too long, the abyss stares back.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.