The horrors of having an imaginative youngster have been explored countless times with every twist in the book, from The Babadook to Hide and Seek to Mama and Before I Wake. So 2019’s festival fright Z had a high mountain to climb to stand out from the rest. Though it tries to stand out with its own twists on the tale, what really sets Z apart from its cohorts is its scares. Directing from a screenplay he wrote with his Still/Born writing partner, Colin Minihan, Brandon Christensen creates a tormenting fright worthy of mentioning alongside the greats noted above.
Keegan Connor Tracy stars as Elizabeth, or Beth, a mother trying her best to care for her troubled son, Joshua (Jett Klyne), and manage her husband, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), while taking on her sick mother and her struggling sister. When Joshua seems to be having some trouble at school, and starts to invite his demanding imaginary friend, Z, to the dinner table, Beth and Kevin clash at trying to properly parent their son. At first, Beth must manage the overwhelming instinct to protect her son against the feeling of not trusting him. Eventually, Beth begins feeling haunted by this mysterious friend, and Joshua displays increasingly troubling behaviour for which he denies any fault. Struggling to protect her family while constantly being brushed off, Beth becomes increasingly isolated until she must finally have a showdown against this haunter of youth.
The film starts by painting the portrait of a family struggling with a monster by way of imaginary friend, but soon shifts to the perspective of Beth. This welcome change leaves the family a bit in the dust, not letting Jett Klyne do much muscle flexing as the creepy kid, but allows the story to follow Beth’s perspective, robbing the viewer of objective viewing. By taking us into her headspace, the movie prevents us from having an external view on what is real, allowing us to question what might be true.
It’s impossible not to compare Z to its most recent cohorts like The Babadook and Insidious, and it’s unfortunately not as good as they are. But what this film does accomplish is a new take on old scares. The scares here aren’t of the “jump” variety, but instead rely on musical swells and simple long shots of something unsettling that isn’t just in the background, but is interacting with the characters. The largest of the film’s scares quite literally made me shout and had me shaken for a few minutes afterwards. It’s just absolutely ruthless. The meaty parts of this are certainly towards the middle, which leaves the ending a bit drawn out and less fun than what came before it, but if anything, that’s a testament to the effectiveness of the mid-film happenings.
What this movie loses for me is its dance between the monster being an imagined manifestation of a person’s inner demons à la The Babadook, or a real monster that is symbolic of a person’s inner demons. It dances a bit too close to each possibility without ever being bound by the rules of the other. But there is certainly no shortage of theme explored through the medium of a monster film, no matter if it was “all in her head” or a physical manifestation. Beth is a stay-at-home mom who is face to face with her child’s issues and is desperately trying to explain them to her absent husband, who laughs in the face of her claims that there’s a real monster latching onto their child. Beth came from a troubled home, had to care for her mother with whom she had a bad relationship, while picking up the pieces of her broken sister—all things distracting her from her ability to mind her son. Z as a monster is a fright himself, but the real frights plaguing Beth, a mother doing all she can, are made worse and put on display by this imaginary friend.
Though not the perfect version of the genre of spooky kids and imaginary friends who are really ghosts, Z is an absolute standout fright that merits a viewing. I don’t imagine it achieving the cult-like status of other indies in its category, but it certainly will seep into the general consciousness over time. What this movie gets right is the change on scares, being shocking when it can, and using terrifying imagery within its budget. Sure, there is a bit of dingy CGI, but there are also terrifying poster-making paintings, and glowing eyes built on simple train sets. Though I think it could have gone a little bit further into exploring the themes it grazes, ultimately, Z is a successful spook that explores what it means to be a mother at all costs.
Movie Score: 3.5/5