The 400-Word Review: Daniel Isn't Real
By Sean Collier
March 31, 2020

I dunno... he looks real.

A significant percentage of horror fiction, from Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” to the “Child’s Play” series, plays a game of this-or-that with the audience.

The central question in these tales: Does the demon (or the ghost, or the killer doll, or what have you) exist in the mind of the raving victim — or is it a real threat? In “Daniel Isn’t Real,” he’s on the screen in front of us. He’s in the title. Our unfortunate protagonist finds evidence of Daniel’s presence. Yet — without giving much away — we are not going to get a straight answer about him.

Or are we? Hard to say. In these stories, the solution isn’t often entirely clear-cut. (Except for the “Child’s Play” example. Chucky is definitely real.)

“Daniel Isn’t Real” is adapted from the novel “In This Way I Was Saved” by Brian DeLeeuw, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Adam Egypt Mortimer. We meet Daniel (Nathan Reid as a child, then Patrick Schwarzenegger as a young adult) as he suddenly arrives in the life of Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner as a child, then Miles Robbins as an adult).

Luke has been hit by twin traumas. Looking to escape a screaming match between his parents — Dad is leaving because Mom won’t seek mental-health care — he flees his house and heads for the park. En route, however, he passes by a bloody crime scene; he’s horrified and transfixed by the carnage. At that moment, Daniel arrives and invites him to the park to play.

Luke’s newly single mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) tolerates this supposedly imaginary companion at first; Daniel seems to be helping Luke cope. When Luke follows some sinister instructions from his new friend, however, the lad is told to lock Daniel away. Daniel returns more than a decade later, and he comes back with an agenda.

A strong cast plays “Daniel Isn’t Real” with raw abandon. The young Schwarzenegger doesn’t have his father’s physique (or accent) but inherited an effortless command of the camera; the casting is quite fitting, as the audience is as powerless to escape his influence as Luke. Sasha Lane appears as Luke’s unfortunate love interest; the role is decidedly underwritten, but her charisma is undeniable.

Mortimer diverges into manic-psychedelic artsiness here and there; it’s distracting, but not damning. “Daniel Isn’t Real” is a sturdy genre effort worthy of a wider audience.

My Rating: 7/10

“Daniel Isn’t Real” is streaming now on Shudder.