REVIEW: ‘Z’ (2020) is an Imaginary Friend from Hell

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“Familiar territory, but a fun concept and adventurous script keep it from feeling stale”

Sometimes it’s not a good idea to give your children what they want, especially if what they want has elongated limbs, sharp teeth and is invisible. This is what Brandon Christensen tackles in his new film, the awkwardly named Z — a Shudder exclusive.

It’s initially all fun and games when Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) indulges in her son’s fantasy of an imaginary friend. She lays breakfast for two and doesn’t give her son Joshua (Jett Klyne) a particular type of milk because Z doesn’t like it. There’s a little of The Invisible Man in the framing of the scenes, in the way the camera lingers on a presence you can’t see but everybody in the room believes is there; a breakfast table has never felt so threatening. It’s not long before Joshua’s playfulness turns sinister; he gets suspended from school and starts making behavioural choices that he attributes to his new friend Z. He spends his days talking to this 8ft invisible entity — this is not what Elizabeth meant when she wanted her son to make friends. The sinister force that devastates the happy family that Elizabeth and husband Kevin (Sean Rogerson) have built may also be rooted in Elizabeth’s past, and, for a while, Christensen toys with notion of inherited evil and the traumas adults pass onto their children. Z has an excellent start, building quickly and efficiently.

Christensen had a solid low-budget debut with Still/Born, a horror that merged paranormal haunting with the psychological effects of postnatal depression. It impressed on the strengths of its female lead and interesting script but ultimately fell away into genre tropes. Like Still/Born, Z deals with the dynamics of mothers and their children, and it is anchored by a committed and believable Keegan Connor Tracy as Elizabeth. Z even repeats similar scenes from Still/Born, making Christensen’s two films the start of a curious and thematically linked body of work. The director improves with his second film, but still succumbs to a loose handling of his creations by not settling on the mythology and rules of his own world. As a result — and through an enjoyable but clunky third act shift — Z jumps wildly between wanting to be a metaphorical horror and an actual monster horror. The parts are more interesting than the whole, but they are good parts.

Z is at its most interesting when it has you wondering about the extent to which nightmares can become rooted in reality and hurt the person making them. Christensen works fast to get you worrying about Elizabeth’s state of mind and the safety of Joshua, whilst the camera establishes a menacing presence in the dark hallways of their home. It’s familiar territory, but a fun concept and adventurous script keep it from feeling stale.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Z is that it peaks too soon, and nothing else lives up to its ruthless promise. Its best scare comes early and is genuinely gasp inducing. This scene is the scariest because it’s rooted in everyday maternal fears. Grounding horror in real life is what Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook understood, and what the best horrors do. Horror is only as scary as what the audience can imagine. Red eyes glowing in the dark aren’t scary anymore, but a mother not being able to protect her son and those that come in contact with him? That is genuine, relatable fear. When Z explores this, its design and performance click. It’s when Christensen begins to show more interest in special effects that the film loses its identity.

As Z moves into its second half, Christensen can’t resist pushing his film in the direction of tired tropes and weak creature effects that his budget can’t sustain; imagine shadowy creatures grabbing children from the dark and disappearing behind doors. He also can’t make up his mind on what Z can and can’t do; sometimes doors are a barrier, sometimes they’re not. Despite all of this, Christensen has a few late-game surprises. Z becomes a completely different film in its last act, and I had fun with it. There’s a comic darkness that seeps into Elizabeth’s situation that plays with abusive relationships and the power we give our nightmares. It’s a bizarre change of pace, but it keeps things interesting.

At its best, Z is an entertaining, competently shot exploration of parental fears and the vivid imagination of children. At its worst, it’s a silly monster film that indulges in cheesy effects and toys that light up whenever the house goes quiet. Some lazy choices dilute Christensen’s carefully established mood, and it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t come together in a more meaningful way. There are also two conflicting rug pulls at the end and neither convince. If anything, they exacerbate Christensen’s own lack of conviction in his ideas. As is always the case with horror: the more you show, the weaker it becomes. Still/Born started strong and ended with a whimper, and Z loses its footing in a similar manner — but it does look better and goes to unexpected places.

Z is ultimately a little too rough around the edges, but it’s well acted and has one major scare that means I can recommend it. It’s worth your time, a breezy ninety minutes, which in itself is a refreshing throwback to cheap genre thrills. Hopefully, third time’s the charm for Christensen. There are good ideas here, but like the vague and menacing Z, the vision isn’t clear enough to truly frighten.

Director: Brandon Christensen

Producers: Brandon Christensen, Chris Ball, Kurtis David Harder, Colin Minihan

Cast: Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Klyne, Sean Rogerson, Sara Canning

Release Date: 2020

Available on Shudder

Featured Image Courtesy of Digital Interference Productions