Evil Imaginary Friend Film Z (2020) Fails to Reach Potential Due to Lack of Imagination
First Wide Release: May 7th, 2020 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Brandon Christensen
Writer: Brandon Christensen, Colin Minihan
Runtime: 83 Minutes
Starring: Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Lyne, Sean Rogerson
Where to Watch: Exclusively available for free on Shudder
A young family begins to experience strange phenomena after their child starts playing with an imaginary friend named Z. What starts out relatively benign with pushing boundaries at school and at home, quickly devolves into something greater when people start getting hurt. Racing against time, Elizabeth, played by Keegan Connor Tracy, must get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Z if she wants to save her son. Director Brandon Christensen’s sophomore effort Z starts out promising enough but soon enough ventures into middling territory.
The interesting premise of Z is dampened by an over-reliance of familiar tropes. The first forty minutes or so of Z, I was hooked. The story of a creepy imaginary friend coming to life to inflict harm is not an original idea in of itself but had the potential to stretch into something exciting. Unfortunately, Z takes a different approach later in the film that bogs it down to the depths of unremarkable supernatural thrillers before it. This reveal feels awkward and out-of-place given the events preceding it. To me, it neither feels plausible or satisfying, ultimately hindering a script that could have gone in many more interesting directions.
Z fails to create memorable characters that give audiences a reason to care about their plight. The bulk of the character development in Z is devoted to Tracy’s Elizabeth, whose character is written flat and portrayed only slightly better. The biggest disappointment, however, is the lack of time spent with the titular antagonist. I wanted to know more about Z and felt like there was so much more that the writers could have delved into in an alternate world. Character-wise, the one bright spot was Joshua. Joshua, played by Jett Klyne, is introduced as an imaginative eight-year-old who seems relatively harmless. Without revealing too much, I appreciated the decisions made in relation to Joshua’s proximity to the horror. While this is squandered by the time the third act rolls around, it was refreshing to see a redirect in a film of this nature.
Z is noticeably sleek and aesthetically pleasing, which makes up for a lack of engaging story. The use of color and imagery amplifies the horror of the family’s situation. My favorite visuals from Z come from a scene where the father investigates noises alone in the house. A crayon drawing of Z is illuminated by the emanating red life of a room full of toys which creates an exceptionally hypnotic and disorienting visual experience. Little moments like this are peppered throughout Z which shows the technical creativity of the project. It’s a shame it was matched with a limp story.
Z’s technical competence brightens an otherwise tepid supernatural film. One of my favorite uses of sound comes into play about halfway through the film. It left my jaw gaping for nearly a whole two minutes. It was an incredibly simple yet well done moment in the film that makes me disappointed that there were not more moments like that throughout Z’s runtime. Aside from one cartoonish take on the imaginary friend, much of the effects were realistic and executed with finesse.
Christensen is clearly a competent director but works with stories that could use a little more development to truly deliver on their premises. Z is chock full of inspired moments that make me certain that Christensen is talented. With a knack for creating tension, Christensen favors longer, drawn-out sequences and true moments of shock rather than cheap jump scares that typically plague middle-of-the-road horror films. The overall tone of Z feels dark and dangerous, which is potentiated by the character choices of Z. Ultimately, Z’s potential is held up by a script that ironically lacks the imagination that its eight-year-old protagonist is said to have.
Deep within the story of Z lies a smaller story on the nature of mental illness and parenting. Every parent should want the best for their kid and many muse over whether their parenting methods are effective or damaging. Z tries to incorporate hereditary mental illnesses into this mix, and it doesn’t quite land right. It ends up pushing the story down a familiar path that supernatural horror films have done in the past without bringing anything new or interesting into the fold, aside from the manifestation of Z itself. In my opinion, Z would have been a stronger film had they tweaked the message or chose a completely different path altogether.
I wanted to like Z more than I actually did. Much like Christensen’s first film Still/Born, I found myself liking many specific moments in the film, but ultimately feeling disconnected from the finished product. Many ideas of a great story were there, they were just ill-conceived or unrealized. Z shines in its technical execution, but much of it could have benefited from clearer direction and a more polished script. A few moments of good horror cannot make up for its many flaws. Overall, it was worth the watch for me, but I would not recommend Z to a casual viewer. A lack of imagination kills the dream of Z becoming the terrifying horror film it could have been.
Overall Score? 5.5/10