Daniel Isn’t Real is a disturbing and surreal but moving experience.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a surrealistic, supernatural, weird fiction, body horror that dives deep into the mind of a college freshman. It handles mental illness, trauma, and inner demons with care and respect while real demons take control. The original body horror effects, disturbing music and eerie sound effects make the experience even more uncanny.
But it is beautifully filmed with dreamlike music as well to make it a surreal and moving descent into mind-bending reality where Lovecraftian horror awaits. It’s a very artful film that lingers in your mind as well in your heart.
Little Luke has to deal with a mother who loves him but struggles with mental illness. When she and his father have a fight, he walks away from home only to witness the aftermath of a shooting. After seeing the shocking sight of the dead body of the shooter, a little imaginary boy named Daniel shows up to comfort him and to be his friend. But when Daniel plays a trick on him, that almost kills his mother, Luke and his mother lock Daniel up in the doll house.
Years later when Luke goes off to college he has hallucinations and his psychiatrist suggests to let Daniel back into his life for support. But Daniel might not be as imaginary as Luke thought he was, and even more dangerous than he could ever imagine.
Why you should watch it
It is an uncanny take on both mental illness, unable to trust your own mind, inner demons and trauma as well as a scary take on real demons. It blends reality with a surrealistic atmosphere with beautiful cinematography and an intimate look inside Luke’s mind.
Luke is an endearing little boy, and a shy but friendly young adult. He worries about his mom, about sex and girls and death, and even after his troublesome childhood he seems pretty normal. But when he hallucinates and sees demons and faints, something is amiss.
It is the onset of an upsetting descent into madness and his real struggle begins.
Daniel has the appearance of a bad boy, with no scruples and acts like it. Although he keeps saying he’s a part of Luke, the daring part, Luke doesn’t trust him. Neither does the viewer. There are tiny hints, a lurking figure and a big body horror scene with a Lovecraftian vibe that says otherwise and that Daniel is in fact very real.
It’s not the mystery if Daniel is real or not, that’s at the core of the film. The title gives it away in a cynical and a too commanding tone. It’s the whole experience Luke has to go through that is the main focus of the film, while Luke forms the moving heart.
The execution of the body horror is gorgeous. It’s surreal, creepy and creative, and what comes next is violent and gruesome. It is the horrors that Daniel inflicts on Luke in a mental and physical way that are symbols of an inner battle between good and evil. Between control and letting go.
It’s a very round and well-told story. It’s an intimate look at Luke and his personal battles. The story is kept simple with a minimum of characters to be able to focus on the weirdness and madness and the surreal happenings.
Mental illness isn’t used in a sensational way or as an excuse for horror, but a harrowing illness that effects the patient but their loved ones as well. The fear Luke has to become just like his mother can be as horrifying as Daniel. The reluctance to medicate isn’t judged but understandable, as well is the admission to the mental hospital. It’s an observation that functions as a background that makes Luke more comprehensible and to fortify the story. The trauma Luke suffered from seeing the aftermath of the shooting is an example that a child’s mind isn’t as resilient as we think it is.
My favorite part
The third act when it all spirals out of control is the apotheosis of the film. It starts out gruesome and violent which is in line with Daniel’s character and Luke’s hopelessness. The descent into madness seems to be complete when trapped in a surreal environment like a Lovecraftian hell where demons dwell and an abyss awaits.
The colors and lighting are superb and add to the creepy atmosphere. The music is dreamlike but contrasted by disturbing music and sound effects that are as invasive as Daniel. Here Luke is at a crossroads, either submit or fight. It’s when the epic battle of inner strength with real demons and imagery epic battles from his childhood are combined into a great moving finale.
Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t so much a difficult film to understand or grasp, but it is emotionally charged and after watching you might need some time to let it sink in. Because the images, the gripping story and the ending deserve to be taken in slowly. It’s a film that is beautiful as it is horrifying and disturbing, but it certainly is impressively made with care.
Surreal factor: ★★★★☆
Gruesome factor: ★★★☆☆
Originality factor: ★★★★★
Cast and crew
Daniel Isn’t Real is based on the novel of the same name written by Brian DeLeeuw. The film is directed and written by Adam Egypt Mortimer and co-written by Brian DeLeeuw. It stars Miles Robbins (Luke), Patrick Schwarzenegger (Daniel), Sasha Lane (Cassie), Mary Stuart Masterson (Claire), Hannah Marks (Sophie) and Chukwudi Iwuji (Braun).
Duration: 100 minutes. Music: Clark. Cinematography: Lyle Vincent. Edited by: Brett W. Bachman. Produced by: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood. Production companies: SpectreVision, Ace Pictures, Marc Graue Recording Studios. Distributed by: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Shudder.