Spoilers will remain locked up.

The most intriguing horror comes from within. Horror movies that play with the idea that our psyche could be the generator of the scariest nightmares can be done right if they manage to avoid demonizing mental illness. The answer to do this, according to director Adam Egypt Mortimer, is empathy. You have to make the characters relatable and identifiable enough.

(Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Daniel Isn’t Real is a creation of director Adam Egypt Mortimer and writer Brian DeLeeuw. Luke (Miles Robbins) is dealing with his mentally ill mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) while trying to navigate college and his own mind. He remembers that in days of old, he used to converse with an imaginary friend. That character once caused him to almost kill his mother and had to be put away, in a particularly ornate dollhouse. Years later, Luke opens the door once again and finds that his imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), has also grown up and he’s willing to help him with his life.

There is a conversation to have here about Daniel as the aspect of Luke that embodies toxicity. He’s cool, suave and sophisticated but has a volatile mean streak. As Daniel helps get Luke out of his head and into the world, they meet Cassie (Sasha Lane). Luke is pretty smitten but Daniel wants him to sleep around with other girls too. That’s when we found out Daniel can do things as Luke when he’s sleeping. Soon enough, he can also take over when he’s awake. As Daniel becomes more and more threatening, Luke realizes he can no longer put him away.

Strongly recommended but with a distinct reservation. The film is not exonerated cleanly of the negative portrayal of mental illness, explicitly schizophrenia. It does however start a conversation on the toxic aspects of young people as portrayed by the Daniel character. Other than that, the movie is primarily character-driven with excellent performances from both Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger. There’s also a note that I’d like to make about the ending, but that would entail me revealing it. More than worth a watch, but definitely not a popcorn movie.

That will do for now.