Director Adam Egypt Mortimer – who co-wrote this with Brian DeLeeuw, author of the source novel In This Way I Was Saved – made his debut with Some Kind of Hate, in which a troubled, abused young man sought help from a vengeful ghost girl who did more than even the score. This also involves a human/supernatural friendship which takes a nasty turn, though its venture into imaginary friend/doppelganger/possession territory evokes a whole raft of (mostly literary) texts including R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Chuck Palahniuk’s (and David Fincher’s) Fight Club, and Christopher Fowler’s Spanky. Unusually, it also draws a lot on painting – this is the first film I’ve seen that suggests the influence of Clive Barker’s pictures rather than his movies or books, and there are elements from the animations of Jan Svankmajer (especially the unforgettable Dimensions of Dialogue) and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Which might suggest an overload of theme and imagery, but the plot and performances click too, making this one of the year’s most disturbing out-and-out horror films. As the title suggests, it plays a game that’s almost the reverse of the Fight Club/A Beautiful Mind set-up, as we realise the protagonist’s imaginary friend has a literal, independent existence even though he pretends that he doesn’t.
Young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) wanders out of a dark New York brownstone as his mother Claire (Mary Stewart Masterson) has a final argument with her absconding husband and happens upon the bloody scene of an inexplicable mass shooting. There, he meets Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid), a creepy kid no one else can see, and they strike up a bond which leads to him coming home – it’s crucial that Luke and Claire both invite the slick-haired little demon into their lives – and becoming the lonely boy’s only playmate in fantasy parachute dives and broomstick swordfights. When Luke gets into trouble, he blames Daniel – though that familiar syndrome isn’t displacement since Daniel really does urge him into mischief, to the extent of having him dump sleeping pills into his mom’s smoothie (he says it’ll give her supert-powers). To exorcise what she believes is a projection of her son’s dark impulses, Claire has Luke drive Daniel into grandmother’s antique doll’s house – a recurrent image in contemporary horror – where he is trapped by the turn of a key.
As a troubled student, Luke (Miles Robbins) consults a shrink who gives him the very bad advice of letting his imagination free – which brings the now-grown Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) back into his life. Again, Daniel first seems to give Luke a boost, and he becomes confident enough to start seeing an interesting, unconventional artist (Sasha Lane, from American Honey) … though, under Daniel’s influence, he also makes the moves on cute semi-goth Sophie (Hannah Marks). Eventually, Daniel starts wheedling to be put in the driver’s seat and the film really breaks from psychological to spiritual horror in their first exchange as flesh melds and stretches and the expelled Luke panics while Daniel begins to act like Mr Hyde for the #metoo generation. He also starts wondering about that long-ago barroom shooter, John Thigpen (Daniel Marconi), and visits the dead man’s father (Peter McRobbie, of The Visit) on the presumption that Thigpen – who manifests as a truly alarming apparition which looks like a freeze frame of what happens when Plastic Man takes multiple bullets to the head – was Daniel’s last patsy.
The struggle between Jekyll and Hyde/Faust and Mephisto/doppel and ganger plays out as an agonising game, with our sympathies invested in a guy who has been lured slowly into great evil. Robbins makes the jittery, difficult, sensitive New Testament Luke a credibly awkward, yet deep-down decent character, but also flashes a smooth nastiness when the sly, cruel, misogynist Old Testament Daniel takes over. Schwarzenegger just has to be evil charm in a skin suit. Like Some Kind of Hate, this has a distinctive look and feel, making the city seem like a doll’s house perched on the edge of the inferno.