There are touches of M Night Shyamalan and Donnie Darko in this enjoyably ludicrous low-budget psychological-horror, directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, about an imaginary friend who turns nasty. It’s full of plot holes but compulsively watchable for the first hour, before the whole thing falls to pieces as Mortimer chucks in a load of well-worn horror-movie tropes.
Miles Robbins plays Luke, an unconfident arty law student who as a kid had an imaginary friend called Daniel – a coping mechanism to help him deal with his dad walking out, or so everyone believed. Now Luke is in college and Daniel is back, charming and sinister, and played by Arnie’s son, Patrick Schwarzenegger, giving a show-offy performance like an evil Ferris Bueller.
At first Luke blossoms with Daniel, invisible by his side, boosting his confidence, encouraging him to ditch stuffy law and follow his dream of becoming a photographer. A pep talk from Daniel gets him the number of gorgeous party girl Sophie (Hannah Marks). But when Luke is more interested in hippy artist Cassie (Sasha Lane), Daniel gets mean. Is Luke suffering from delusions, a raging id or has he actually got an imaginary frenemy?
The problem with Daniel Isn’t Real is that it wants it both ways in terms of mental health. You get the sense that Mortimer and his co-writer Brian DeLeeuw, adapting his own novel, would like to say some semi-serious things about mental illness (and perhaps even about the incel community). But the film lost me when Mortimer unleashed a hell-fury of special effects as Daniel literally gets under Luke’s skin.
Still, Sasha Lane, so brilliant in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, is no one’s idea of a horror-movie damsel, feistily fighting back rather than running and screaming when the time comes.
• Daniel Isn’t Real is released in the UK on 7 February.