Portraying mental health on screen has been seen throughout film history, but increasingly this subject matter has been used more and more within the genre of horror. As anyone who suffers from mental health knows, when you are in the grips of a disease like depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia or otherwise it is like a hellish nightmare that offers no form of escapism from the reality that consumes you. Which is why horror is the perfect genre to be manipulated into manifesting those feelings into something that is more relatable. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer delivers a poignant yet horrifying story with his psychological horror film Daniel Isn’t Real.
As a young boy, Luke is witness to a traumatic event; after a mass shooting in a restaurant Luke happens to walk by and see the dead attacker lying dead and bloody on the sidewalk having been shot by the Police. He walks to the park to play and quickly makes friends with another young boy named Daniel. The problem is that Daniel is merely a figment of Luke’s imagination, perhaps conjured up to deal with the distressing scenes of violence he has witnessed. After an incident with his mother, they metaphorically lock Daniel in a dollhouse. As a teenage boy studying at University, Luke returns to his childhood home, only to be reunited with Daniel who has become more deranged and malicious after years without his best friend.
Daniel Isn’t Real comes from an adaptation of the book, In This Way I was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, which has its differences but also many similarities too. The on-screen story is centered around this toxic relationship that Luke forms with Daniel, but somehow can’t seem to have any control over. Even though Daniel is a figment of Luke’s imagination, he is a dark entity that resides in a section of his mind that doesn’t seem accessible by rationality, kindness or goodness, leaving Luke to feel frustrated that this supposed part of him is so disturbed and adamant on causing chaos. Throughout the film there is a constant power struggle between the two – with Daniel always seeming to have the upper hand and final decision, because when Luke disobeys him, he finds a way to ruin everything that he actually finds enjoyment from.
Luke is played by Miles Robbins, who is Tim Robbins son and Daniel is played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, who is the son of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both of these young male actors have followed in their father’s footsteps, and for good reason. Robbins executes his portrayal of a normal yet slightly troubled young man exceptionally; through his performance he reminds the audience that we all have demons from our pasts that continuously come back to haunt us, but for some people that often manifests itself as mental illness which can lead to causing destruction and pain without having a conscious malicious intent. Schwarzenegger is utterly compelling and convincing as the skin-crawling Daniel, reminding us that the dark presence that sometimes resides in our mind is truly a lingering spirit that isn’t as easy to eradicate as we would like to believe.
The imagery and cinematography within this film helps to elevate and enhance the poignant messaging behind what is truly happening to Luke. It’s vivid yet dark in colour choices, flitting between melancholic colour tones to eccentric neons that show the full intensity of what is happening to Luke and how he constantly feels – going from one end of the spectrum to the next within seconds. Daniel Isn’t Real doesn’t hold back when it comes to disturbing visuals and ensures the audience see in full detail how Daniel crawls and gnaws his way beneath the skin of Luke, leaving behind any entrails that are deemed useless and don’t conform to the body constraints. Some viewers might find that seeing these aspects personified sensationalise mental health but I felt completely the opposite – these distressing snippets of on-screen set pieces really helped me to understand how it might feel to suffer from a particular mental illness.
Daniel Isn’t Real disturbingly creates a landscape of mental illness that materialises the horror for those suffering, and the exhausting yet unseen battle that continues raging within the mind. The Babadook tackles depression and guilt, The Look Like People demonstrates anxiety and paranoia, Possession shows obsession and mania and Daniel Isn’t Real shows schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. This film, albeit horror, understands the pain that someone with a mental illness is struggling from and uses film as an expressive form to show how chaotic, terrifying and demonic being a sufferer truly is.
Directed by: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Written by: Brian DeLeeuw, Adam Egypt Mortimer
Cast: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson