Many of us have a childhood memory of a monster that we were convinced lived in the closet, under our bed, or in a particularly shadowy corner of our room. It’s funny how, as we age, the shadows simply become shadows and our fears slowly fade. Suppose, however, that the specter in the shadows never really went away… we just no longer had the imagination to see him.
Z chillingly challenges the idea that we can outgrow our deepest fears. The cynicism of adulthood can’t necessarily save you from the things that go bump in the night and our greatest traumas have the power to haunt us forever. Z blurs the line between what is real and what is imagination… and it’s a nightmare.
Z is directed by Brandon Christensen (Still/Born) and stars Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Klyne, and Sean Rogerson. The film enjoyed a warm reception on the genre festival circuit, terrifying early audiences before finding a home on the horror streaming service Shudder. Z was the “Scariest Film” winner at Popcorn Frights and the Audience Award Winner at the Calgary International Film Festival.
In Z, young parents Beth (Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Rogerson) aren’t quite sure what to do about their son, Josh, when he begins talking with an imaginary friend named “Z.” What begins as benign childhood imagination turns more sinister when Z begins to drive Josh to increasingly violent and shocking behavior. Things only get stranger when Beth starts seeing things herself. Maybe Z isn’t there for Josh…
They say if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and that certainly stands for some of the great tropes of the horror genre. Kids are creepy and a good “child as a vessel of evil” story is almost guaranteed to play well with horror lovers. At the outset, Z sets up an exceptional “creepy kid” tale. Even as it treads the very familiar territory of a spooky imaginary friend, Z is presented so well that it feels fresh and exciting. The viewer giddily gears up for a favorite horror treat. Until things take a turn…
The absolute greatest strength of Z is how it lures both its characters and the viewer into a false sense of security, before violently flipping the script. It’s just when we’ve settled into the fear of the “creepy kid” narrative that the story changes completely into something totally shocking and new. When shit hits the fan in Z, it hits suddenly and hard. The film is genuinely terrifying (inspiring this critic to shriek not once, but twice) and builds that horror on tension and “the unknown” more than it does jump scares.
[Spoiler Warning] Brandon Christensen has done it again with a horror film that frightens, but also provokes. Z contains multitudes as the story transitions from Josh’s haunting to that of his mother, Beth. What we learn in the film is that Z was Beth’s imaginary friend first, before she grew up and his memory faded. Now, the presence is using her son as a means of making contact once again.
In an effort to save her child, Beth willingly submits to Z and takes up with him in the neglected former home of her parents. From here, the film masterfully constructs an allegory of abuse, trauma, and the cynicism of adulthood. Z occupies this bizarre position as both a fatherly and romantic presence, but both are deeply hinged in themes of abuse. As the film looks back to Beth’s early childhood experience with Z, it appears that Z was her means of escaping whatever reality existed in her home… and with her father, who hung himself when she was very young. It’s not a stretch to infer that for Beth, at that time, Z was an escape from a potentially abusive situation. This is supported by the way Beth reverts back to a childlike state when interacting with Z, a common occurrence in those who suffer trauma in early childhood.
As Beth lives with Z, we see a very clear portrait of the battered woman. She’s always looking over her shoulder, living in fear of retaliation if she does not perform the way he wants. In one scene in particular, she is paralyzed with fear in the dark as the bed bends under the weight of something crawling into it. The fact that the viewer rarely sees Z allows us to plug in a boogeyman that is already familiar: the abuser.
Z, as a figure, is particularly interesting. He’s first introduced by drawings as a humanoid monster who is impossibly large, with long grotesque limbs. As Beth gets closer to discovering him, the monster’s mouth is quite large and he’s hulking and terrifying... but with surprisingly human eyes. Once Beth submits to the haunting, Z appears in brief glimpses looking more like a normal man (and appealingly in some form of nudity). Is Z the creation of a child that cannot comprehend the real monster she sees in front of her, in the form of an abuser?
It’s incredibly nuanced and sophisticated work, which doesn’t come as a surprise, considering Still/Born and Christensen’s current record with psychological horror. Cinematography, tension building, and creature design are all carried off to perfection by the great performances in the cast. Well done.
Z is a film that will have you shrieking in spooky delight one second, and planting a cold ball of anxiety in your gut the next. Legitimately terrifying and a really excellent study in trauma, it’s guaranteed to have you searching for your old nightlight.
Z makes its streaming premiere on Shudder on May 7th, 2020.
Movie Score: 4/5