An alter ego gets a little too altering in “Daniel Isn’t Real.” Based on co-writer Brian DeLeeuw’s novel “In This Way I Was Saved,” this strong second feature for director Adam Egypt Mortimer centers on an unhappy youth whose childhood “imaginary friend” returns to active duty, to initially helpful ends that all too soon turn malevolent and destructive. Spectrevision’s stylishly crafted psychological horror thriller has enough twists and finesse to attract favorable attention beyond genre bounds, signaling upbeat prospects for exposure in various formats.
City kid Luke (initially played by Griffin Robert Faulkner) has to bear a lot of stress for an 8-year-old: His parents are splitting up, and his mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) is unstable, to put it mildly. Leaving the house one day to escape another marital argument, he comes across something even more traumatic — the aftermath of a seemingly random mass shooting.
It’s while frozen to the spot, staring at the bullet-riddled corpse of the police-felled perp, that Luke meets apparent fellow bystander Daniel (Nathan Reid), a slightly older kid who’s the ideal playmate, confidante and confidence-booster. He’s such a positive development that Luke isn’t much fazed when he realizes no one else can see or hear his new “friend.” But Daniel turns out to have an independent will, as well as some malicious ideas. When one prank he wheedles Luke into has serious consequences, mom insists “Daniel” be locked in grandma’s old dollhouse, a symbolic gesture she hopes will curtail her son’s overactive imagination.
A decade later, Luke (Miles Robbins) is a socially awkward college student no longer under mom’s roof, though his move across town to a dorm has had the affect of making her schizophrenia even more pronounced. Afraid that mental illness might be his fate as well, he sees a school counselor (Chukwudi Iwuji) who advises him to confront aspects of his lingering childhood pain head-on. This leads Luke to unlock that dollhouse, where it seems Daniel has been waiting in some purgatorial other dimension all along. The returned “friend” is now fully grown (Patrick Schwarzenegger), with an “American Psycho”-like caustic swagger.
Once again, at first Daniel seems an enormous boon, helping Luke loosen up, get better grades and even approach girls: Notably, aspiring artist Cassie (Sasha Lane of “American Honey”) and fellow student Sophie (Hannah Marks). But while Daniel’s carnal appetites may be just an exaggeration of Luke’s own, he has a more vicious, violent side wholly divorced from his “host’s” desires. Increasingly panicked, Luke begins to fear Daniel may be no psychological bogeyman, but an evil outside force — one that perhaps drove the shooter he saw dead at age 8 to kill several strangers in a coffee shop.
With Luke by now medicated, manipulated and manic, “Daniel Isn’t Real” has already developed a hallucinogenic edge before an attempted exorcism of sorts by the school counselor brings a disastrous result. The film’s last reel makes a leap into “Hellraiser”-type fantasy and body horror, maintaining suspense and raising stakes without ever quite going over the top.
Schwarzenegger is impressive, choosing to emphasize Daniel’s cockiness, petulance, jealousy and other seemingly modest faults so that we don’t immediately glimpse the full extent of his monstrousness. He rather overshadows Robbins’ passive hero — until Luke is fully possessed, and the actor gets to channel that gleeful malignancy himself. Supporting performances are solid, particularly Masterson’s as a woman dealing with very non-supernatural psychosis. While one might accuse “Daniel’s Not Real” of exploiting actual mental conditions for the purposes of lurid fiction, the serious way the film depicts Claire’s plight ameliorates that charge.
The highly accomplished assembly is modestly scaled but first-rate in all departments, with particularly vivid and inventive contributions from the frequently color-saturated photography by DP Lyle Vincent (“Thoroughbreds”) and Kaet McAnneny’s character-revealing production design.