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Film / Daniel Isn't Real

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Don't listen to him.
Daniel Isn't Real is a 2019 American Psychological Horror Film, adapted from the novel In This Way I Was Saved, by Brian Deleeuw. The film is directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, and written by Mortimer and Deleeuw.

The story focuses on troubled college freshman named Luke (Miles Robbins) who, feeling stressed out by school and the need to care for his erratic mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) manifests the imaginary friend he hasn’t seen since he was a little boy. Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is everything Luke is not: sexy, bold, and very dangerous, which is why Luke ended up locking Daniel away in his mind all those years ago. But now his alter ego is back, and what begins as a helpful companionship turns into a parasitic exchange.

It had its world premier at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March of 2019, before being picked up for distribution by Metro Goldwyn Films, which released it theatrically in the US on December 6, 2019.

Tropes in this film include:

  • A God Am I: One of the first times Daniel turns against Luke, no less. Once Daniel notices Luke spending more attention on Cassie than him, and even starting to diverge from his advice when it comes to wooing her, his next immediate quote intended for Luke to repeat to her ends up being a Bible verse about the wrath of God, ending with "thou shalt have no other gods BUT ME!"
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Daniel has a consistent face shown to people he manifests around, and a consistent true face only visible to hosts he's successfully parasitized. He seems to have a preference for the latter, but it's not clear if he has any control over how he looks to other people or if he deliberately looks the exact way he does.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Luke throws himself and Daniel off a building, intending to kill himself to take out Daniel. It kills Luke, but doesn't destroy Daniel, who is shown in the psychological cage in his true form, and jumps into the stormy abyss—the same thing Luke did to forcibly manifest when held captive there, and the way he is implied to have first manifested in Luke's adulthood. However, since his current host is dead and it's not clear what happened to John Thigpen, he may not have another host to take over, making it unclear where or in what state he eventually ends up.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • Daniel was locked into Luke's grandmother's dollhouse by Luke's mother when Luke was a child, after he tricked Luke into almost killing his mom. He apparently wasn't able to leave it, as when Luke opens the dollhouse years after he's still there.
    • John Thigpen is still in the same psychological cage Luke is shoved into once Daniel takes over for good.
    • Daniel later on does the same to Luke, by locking his consciousness into the dollhouse.
  • Biblical Motifs: All over the place.
    • Daniel and Luke are names from the bible. Daniel was an extremely capable advisor to a king who quickly ingratiated himself despite being, at heart, loyal only to another (God). Also, much as with the Daniel in this film, experts do not believe him to have been a real person.
    • Daniel's meltdown regarding loyalty towards God.
    • And, of course, Daniel turns out to be an actual demon, resembling (according to his own hand), one from Renaissance-era Christian paintings.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The alternate ending. Luke lives, but is stuck in the imaginary friend role, and the host body—Daniel—is now dead, leaving him unable to be seen by anyone or to contact Cassie.
  • Body Horror: Abundantly so.
    • Daniel's method of possessing Luke. His face contorts into a series of appendages similar to tentacles, which latch onto Luke's face and merge with it.
    • When Luke tries to get his body back with physical force, his arm breaks away, before instantly healing.
    • Daniel's method of permanently taking over involves forcibly pulling open Luke's mouth into a wide orifice, which he crawls down face-first.
    • Daniel twists and pulls away at Luke's face when Cassie rejects him, rearranging it as his own.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Dr. Braun, Luke's black therapist, is killed by Daniel after he unsuccessfully tries to separate him from Luke. Subverted somewhat as John Thigpen's diner murder spree comprises the first few deaths, but Braun's is the first major murder shown in detail.
  • Chekhov's Skill: As a child, Daniel's playfighting sword games with Luke would be augmented with visual and auditory "enhancements", so that Luke would see real swords and hear real metal clangs. When Daniel swaps places with Luke, Luke gains the same ability, weaponizing ordinary tools like brooms and shovels into swords to impale Daniel with.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Dr. Braun's last-resort solution for helping Luke, which involves a ritual to suspend Luke in hypnosis and draw out Daniel. This works exactly as intended, but the problem is that Daniel isn't a simple construct of Luke's mind, but a demonic entity. As a result, Daniel manifests physically, possesses Luke, and kills Dr. Braun.
  • The Hedonist: Daniel. He helps his hosts have fun and in the present day, assists Luke with becoming more socially smooth and loosening up into a popular party guy. However, his pursuit of fun is endless, and he has little regard for caution or sensitivity, encouraging Luke to have sex with Sophie even though he's pursuing Cassie. He also has little patience for anything that gets in the way, quickly suggesting violence against annoyances, and once he takes over, the first thing he does is press the obnoxious roommate's face into a steam pipe.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Daniel is presented as being everything Luke isn't, including suave, smart, and funny. He becomes increasingly possessive of Luke as their relationship continues, invading his personal space and touching him disturbingly. At one point he makes a show of his body to Luke, while Luke is studying for a test. Needing Daniel's help to remember the answers, Daniel removes his shirt seductively to reveal he has written the answers on his nude torso, forcing Luke to oggle him. Becomes Foe Romance Subtext as the film goes on.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Daniel takes the form of an attractive young adult, but in actuality he's a demonic parasite who takes over his victim's bodies, forces them to commit violent acts and then makes them kill themselves. The ending of the film has him assume his true from after leaving Luke's body and it's not pretty.
  • "I Know You Are in There Somewhere" Fight: Cassie at the end, as she fends off Daniel. It works.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Cassie, and to a lesser extent, Sophie, to Luke. Both are much more in touch with their quirky, fun, or irreverent sides than Luke.
  • Meaningful Name: Aside from the Biblical Motifs, "Daniel" is also an anagram of "denial", something Luke goes through with regard to how much control he has over Daniel's existence and something Daniel expresses in regards to his crimes.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend: Daniel, who is first believed to be either an imaginary friend or an outright hallucination of Luke's, is actually a malevolent demonic entity who latches onto vulnerable people and forces them to commit acts of violence.
  • The Shadow Knows: Luke's shadow sometimes distorts into something inhuman, which Cassie includes in her painting of him without first realizing the implications.
  • Taking You with Me: The climax sees Luke jumping from a rooftop, so as to kill himself and stop Daniel from using his possessed body for further violence.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Daniel. He seems to genuinely enjoy helping Luke lighten up and enjoy his life more—but the second Luke starts deviating from his advice and doing things for himself, his attitude sours and the idea that he's not the person Luke is most devoted to quickly comes to the fore as a Berserk Button.