FANTASIA FEST reminds you that DANIEL ISN’T REAL, but you’ll still trip out on a surreal horrific journey!


DIRECTOR: Adam Egypt Mortimer

WRITER: Brian DeLeeuw

CAST: Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Mary Stuart Masterson

After dealing with his mother’s decreasing mental health, and worrying about his own, a college freshman turns to his childhood imaginary friend for comfort and confidence… only to realize that his much cooler and carefree counterpart has an unsettling violent darkness about him, and is quite possibly something more than just his imagination. DANIEL ISN’T REAL is an utterly surreal fever dream channeling the best in cosmic horror, body horror, and psychological horror while also taking a bold look at deeper issues. It comes from Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision imprint, the same company that gave us such gems as MANDY and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, and this one’s right up there with those modern classics.

Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (and based on Brian DeLeeuw’s book, In This Way I Was Saved), DANIEL ISN’T REAL is a wonderfully fantastical ride through fucked up subject matter. It tackles mental illness, trauma, dual nature, identity, male toxicity, and empathy… with a good amount of Lovecraftian madness and trippy yet disgusting Cronenberg-esque visuals thrown in for good measure. 

It’s an engaging story too, about a young man, Luke, overwhelmed with life as his mother’s mental condition worsens. He’s dealing with that on top of everything else college kids go through, lack of confidence, anxiety, etc. There’s also a fear of his own sanity. He keeps hallucinating and blanking out. His therapist suggests that maybe he should try to tap into that creativity he had as a child, where he’d regularly played for hours on end with his imaginary friend, “Daniel”. Only things got very weird the last time he played pretend with Daniel.

Once Daniel re-enters his life, things start to change. Daniel helps Luke deal with his Mother. Luke suddenly feels more confident. Luke is doing well with girls. Luke’s getting creative with photography, and all of his problems seem to go away… Only Daniel seems to want more credit and recognition. And Daniel seems to be getting angrier. And that’s when things get really fucking messed up. 

This film is wonderfully acted by a mix of up and comers and veterans of the scene. Luke is played by Miles Robbins (HALLOWEEN 2018) and gives that immediate likeable and kind, yet meek portrayal that perfectly conveys what kind of a person that Luke is. And he does show a lot of range in emotion in this performance, from hurt and confused to confident, to something else entirely. I always get a kick at seeing an actor completely flip their performance and style midway and totally embody something else, and this film has that and more.

Contrasting that likeability and meekness is Daniel (played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, SCREAM QUEENS), the titular imaginary friend who’s pure Id. He’s cool, slick, charismatic, and always knows the right thing that Luke should say, or do, to get ahead.. He’s helpful… when he wants to be… but he also has a darkness. A scary darkness that seems to stem from… something else. Patrick excels when he taps into this dark alias. He’s evil as fuck. There’s a sinister glee in his manner. He’s a great asshole. He really lets it rip when the audience fully know what we’re dealing with… 

Yet even then, nothing is over explained. And that’s the beauty of this film. There is no expository dialogue or wasted scene. Everything is laid out there and the actors just bring it. This film lives in a world of it’s own and the audience is a passenger for the unholy ride. It’s a very slick film full of world building and outstanding performances that really make everything shine. 

Rounding out the cast is Luke’s troubled mother (veteran Mary Stuart Masterson, who similarly played a powerful and memorable role in BENNY & JUNE), Sasha Lane (HELLBOY) as the love interest, artist, and really, the heart and soul of the film, and Hannah Marks (DIRK GENTLY) as the other girl faced with Luke’s dark side. Every role in this supporting cast is perfectly played and perfectly cast, giving a much needed balance in this heavy film.

And it’s a very heavy film. The story is a deeply personal one for Mortimer (as he explained at the FANTASIA Q&A). The director drew from his own experiences with a friend in his youth who was similarly dealing with mental health issues. Mortimer had to help him, because his friend was “falling off the rails”, with no one around really helping him out. Not friends or professionals. His life was in ruins and he just spiraled off into mania. And it deeply impacted Mortimer.

It was from this experience that Mortimer wanted to make a film about empathy and compassion for people going through severe mental illness issues. While Luke’s troubles seem to stem from something more, the parallels are still there to people going through non-otherworldy issues. A sense of helplessness and a desire to be understood and taken seriously. 

Mortimer also wanted the film to deal with the danger young men are in these days. The Dangers they face and the danger many are to themselves. Living in a world where men have been driven insane by society. A society where many men are both the product and the villain of it. A lot of this is seen on film when Luke battles for control with Daniel. Daniel representing that alpha and that Id. Luke grasping for control and trying to be that voice of compassion and reason. It’s a wonderful character study that is only heightened by the horror elements that come into play.

It’s an absolute horror fan’s delight and it’s visually stunning to boot, mixing psychological & psychedelic horror together. It felt like I was watching HELLRAISER again for the first time, but if that film was shoved in a blender with FIGHT CLUB, JACOB’S LADDER, and copious amounts of mind altering drugs. But comparing it to anything else does no justice to the wholly original eye-gasmic feast set before us. It is an utterly surreal fever dream.

It’s so very layered and out there. It’s refreshing to see new films like this come about with something to say and looking as great as it does. Yes, this film looks very different from most things that are currently out there, with it’s violet texture throughout, and otherworldly feel. Mortimer, who came from a music video background, wanted his second feature to have a distinct look to it, saying that violet hue throughout had a very futuristic and contemporary colour about it. He wanted to create the feeling of a manic episode, and overwhelm the viewer with colours and density. And he does. It’s such a beautiful looking film, and one you’ll definitely go back to just to soak in the wonderful hypnotic visuals. Much like MANDY, from the year before, DANIEL is a cinematic treat for your eyeballs.

And there’s also some deeply messed up visuals that mix in with that beauty. The FX on a whole are amazingly bizarre. From faces being merged into each other, in a pink tentacled mess of VIDEODROME-esque flesh, to other visages literally being mangled like putty! People crawling into other people’s mouths– I could go on. It’s gross and wonderful all at once.

And I can’t go on about the FX without mentioning the nightmarish and hellish creature design by Martin Astles (who also worked on the brutal and classic nightmare fuel that is EVENT HORIZON). The creature FX are so friggin’ out there, each very distinct and very memorable. The kind of things that if you confronted them in real life you’d be quick to claw out your own eyes. One looks like a hellish death beast with a fleshy castle for a head, and absolute architectural artifice. Mortimer said they attempted to convey that a whole universe was in its face, and it existed outside space and time.  Another looking like piercing bullets poking through the flesh and protruding from his cheeks, like a moment frozen in time. They’re all so freakishly creative and disturbing. I can’t even describe them right. I’m not sure I want to, but they’re seared into my mind. Body Horror and Cosmic Horror at their best.

In addition to the visuals, this film also brings it on the sound design and score front. It’s got an incredible score by Warp Records act Clark. It contains synthy goodness along with manipulations of actual orchestral pieces. And it was Clark’s first time working on a film score, something Mortimer prefered. He wanted someone that wasn’t used to working on horror films, or films in general, so they’d throw everything they had into it from the get go. Mortimer told Clark to make it sound like Bernard Herman got stuck in some horrible industrial accident. A relentless sonic assault that tries to capture that same feel that Clint Mansell did with REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. The results are a superb original work of music that completely enhances and already spectacular looking film.

I was a fan of Mortimer’s SOME KIND OF HATE when it previously was shown at FANTASIA FEST a few years back, but DANIEL is an entirely different beast and next level filmmaking. He’s easily grown as a filmmaker and I’m totally on board to see more. I can’t wait to see what he tackles next, because DANIEL is easily one of my top Fantasia picks this year thus far.

DANIEL ISN’T REAL is one of those dark films that will be seen as a cult classic in a few years, right up there with DONNIE DARKO and movies of a similar ilk. It’s full of so much imagination and gusto, all while tackling important issues and core themes ,and still remains highly watchable and engaging. It satisfies any horror junkie or fan of thought provoking films. There are visuals that are so jaw-droppingly good that you’ll permanently have them etched in your brain. It’s the kind of film where you’re watching and you immediately want to rewind and see that scene again. Seek this one out. See it with a friend, real or otherwise, when it hits theatres this winter.


DANIEL ISN’T REAL hits theatres this December.

It’s due out on Spring 2020.

Fantasia runs through August 1st.

About Author /

When Theo isn't drawing weirdo art he's watching Films. Theo likes films. Theo likes all kinds of films. Sometimes we even get a coherent review out of him. Sometimes. Read his yearly coverage of the Fantasia Festival and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

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