Daniel Isn't Real (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jun 19, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Daniel Isn't Real (Blu-ray Review)


Adam Egypt Mortimer

Release Date(s)

2019 (May 28, 2024)


SpectreVision/ACE Pictures/Voltage Pictures (Yellow Veil Pictures/Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

Daniel Isn't Real (Blu-ray)

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Imaginary friends are fertile subject matter for a psychological thriller/horror film. Daniel Isn’t Real is an excursion into nightmare territory for a boy whose imaginary friend, Daniel, appears when the boy suffers trauma on witnessing the aftermath of a mass shooting. As the boy, guided by his “friend,” grows into a young man, he eventually loses control over his own impulses.

When young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) meets Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid), a boy visible to no one but himself, they become inseparable, lost in a fantasy world of heroes and swordplay with brooms. Daniel tricks Luke into killing his mentally unstable mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) with an overdose of drugs secretly slipped into her smoothie. She survives and, on learning what has happened, has Luke lock his imaginary friend in a dollhouse.

Twelve years later, Luke (now played by Miles Robbins, Blockers) is a depressed, insecure law student with few friends. After his mother suffers an especially bad episode, he’s forced to commit her to an institution, and to cope with the emotional toll, he brings back Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, Stowaway). Suave and handsome, sleekly dressed in the manner of American Psycho villain Patrick Bateman, Daniel once again becomes a major part of Luke’s life.

As Luke becomes more assertive and sociable, it looks like Daniel will be Luke’s savior. No longer a somber loner, Daniel embraces social situations he would previously have avoided and becomes a popular young man. He also quits law school, flirts with girls, and develops a relationship with artist Cassie (Sasha Lane, Hellboy). Now Daniel takes exception to some of Luke’s friends and tells him things he doesn’t want to hear. Events take a sinister turn.

Director Adam Egypt Mortimer has fashioned a taut thriller with outstanding performances by a mostly young cast. The script keeps the character of Daniel ambiguous. Is he a hallucination? A supernatural demon? A ghost? A major part of the film’s appeal is that we keep trying to figure this out. Even at the end of the film, a number of questions are left unanswered. While some viewers might find this frustrating, there’s a sort of Twilight Zone vibe that makes you think and offers the satisfaction of not having things spelled out so precisely. The film is captivating and rises above the ordinary.

The script by Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw builds a great deal of suspense, with several twists that keep us on our toes, wondering in which direction the film will go. Eschewing cheap jump scares and goofy monsters, the film is intelligent and centered, never going astray for an easy, unmotivated shock. CGI is applied judiciously and powerfully, particularly in one fantastic scene in which the bond between Luke and Daniel is presented with unsettling imagery.

The two leads anchor the film. Miles Robbins, son of Tim Robbins, and Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold Schwarzenegger, distinguish themselves with performances that capture the essence of their characters. Schwarzenegger projects an air of quiet menace and charm and Robbins conveys the mental anguish, loneliness, confusion, or romantic affection, as the script demands. For a young actor, Robbins’ range is impressive.

There’s a lot to ponder in Daniel Isn’t Real—different ways of perceiving layers of personalities, differing responses to trauma, the willingness to be well, and self-determination. These themes are well integrated into an entertaining mystery, always with an aura of darkness and lurking evil. The atmosphere is built subtly and progressively and sustains tension.

Daniel Isn’t Real was captured digitally by director of photography Lyle Vincent with Sony CineAlta Venice, Cooke Xtal Express, and Panavision T-series lenses, and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. There are no visual imperfections to impede enjoyment. Clarity is mostly very good. A few scenes are dark, likely to add a sense of foreboding. A yellowish cast over some of the scenes between Luke and Daniel gives them an otherworldly look. Complexions look natural. A key special effect is quite amazing and a true highlight of the film. Since CGI is otherwise kept to a minimum, the scene is all the more exciting.

There are 3 soundtrack options: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and English 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital. English subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The music, attributed to the one-named Clark, is nicely atmospheric, with ominous chords reminding us that things may not turn out well. The swirling Abyss that opens the film is enhanced by a mix of sound effects and music suggesting a great force that controls all.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Yellow Veil Pictures include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Adam Egypt Mortimer
  • Audio Commentary with Adam Egypt Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw
  • Audio Commentary with Adam Egypt Mortimer and Grant Morrison
  • Introduction by Adam Egypt Mortimer (2:42)
  • Storyboard to Scenes (6:11)
  • Deleted Scenes with Commentary (7:24)
  • Alternate Ending with Commentary (1:27)
  • Early Script to Film Comparison (60:30)
  • Behind-the-Scenes Slideshow (5:16)
  • The Abyss Extended with New Original Music (10:07)
  • The Abyss Layers of Decomposition (:45)
  • Animation Test of Daniel’s Fortress (:26)
  • Style and Visual Guide Slideshow (24:35)
  • Face Flicker BTS Slideshow (1:45)
  • Demon Face Model Slideshow (:57)
  • Trailer (2:01)

Commentary #1 – Director Adam Egypt Mortimer introduces this commentary by explaining that it’s specifically designed for young filmmakers. He then discusses the step-by-step process he followed in getting Daniel Isn’t Real green-lighted and made. He speaks about pre-production, the personnel essential to making the film follow his vision, and obstacles, delays, and unforeseen setbacks. This is a candid, no- holds-barred description of the often frustrating but ultimately satisfying process of making a feature film.

Commentary #2 – Director/co-writer Mortimer and co-writer Brian DeLeeuw discuss the film’s themes and script process. It took seven years to get the film made. The opening, representing a “seething void, a formless cloud of creation and destruction,” is referred to as the Abyss. It places the film into a cosmic perspective. The filmmakers speak about structure and tone. Differences between DeLeeuw’s book, In This Way I Was Saved, and the screenplay are noted. Filming progressed in linear fashion.

Commentary #3 – Director Adam Egypt Mortimer and Grant Morrison, introduced by Mortimer as “comic book writer, novel writer, and longtime friend,” claim that there’s a cosmic structure guiding life. They talk about differences between early versions of the script and later ones. The name “Luke” for the central character was coincidental and wasn’t meant as a reference to Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. They discuss other films that deal with ambiguity, namely The Innocents, The Thing, The French Connection and JFK. Mortimer prefers a “chaotic definitive explosion of meaning.” Many elements can be synthesized into a single film. In Daniel Isn’t Real, feelings of dread and loneliness had to be made visual.

Introduction by Director Adam Egypt Mortimer – The director and co-writer of Daniel Isn’t Real announces that the film is making its debut on Blu-ray. He talks about the various bonus materials included. Oddly, as he speaks, an unidentified person leans against the wall in the background.

Storyboard to Scenes – Four scenes are compared with storyboards on the left and corresponding scenes in the film on the right. The four scenes are: Opening; Scene 11 (Luke and Daniel broom-fight as kids); Scene 63 (the face flicker); and Scene 81/82 (Daniel takes over Luke).

Early Script to Scene Comparison – Director Mortimer speaks about changes to the original script. Actual script pages are shown. The scenes include The Giant Spider/The Tea Party; The Poisoned Dog; The Train; The Chase; and The Final Sword Fight.

Behind-the-Scenes Slideshow – Color photos and production stills are shown, separated by a clicking sound.

Animation Test of Daniel’s Fortress – A simple shot of the fortress is shown with camera moving in. The sequence is accompanied by music.

The Abyss Extended with New Original Music – Swirling, multi-hued animation is shown as atmospheric music is heard. The dominant color is red.

The Abyss Layers of Decomposition – Music and sound effects accompany the spiral animated representation of a cosmic universe.

Style and Visual Guide Slideshow – Themes, camera directions, stagings, point-of-view coverage, shooting rules, frame compositions, color palette, production design, Daniel’s physicality, and scene breakdowns are methodically described in an extensive, written blueprint of Daniel Isn’t Real.

Booklet – The 20-page enclosed booklet contains an essay by Amy Nicholson, an appreciation by actor-writer-producer Glenn Howerton, and 8 color still photos from the film.

Daniel Isn’t Real has a few drawbacks. First of all, Daniel’s ability to actually touch Luke is counterintuitive if we accept the premise that Daniel is imaginary. It seems Mortimer changes his own rules to accommodate his pre-determined course. The psychiatrist that Luke sees is overly contrived, with his Tibetan singing bowl seeming a bit much and his reactions to some odd manifestations more like hysteria than scientific observation. The role of Cassie is underwritten and clearly a plot device to get some sexy moments into the picture. Apart from these hitches, the film is a good example of low-budget filmmaking. It has the two essential ingredients for success: a solid script and first-class performances, enhanced by intelligent direction, judicious use of special effects, and atmospheric music.

- Dennis Seuling