Bleak & creepy, “Z” isn’t here to play around

Z Keegan Connor Tracy in Z (Shudder)

Shudder’s chilling supernatural horror about a child’s murderous imaginary friend goes to unexpected places.

When I was a mere slip of a girl, many, many years ago, I had not just an imaginary friend, but a whole passel of them. It’s the refuge of shy, lonely kids: do you lack the social skills necessary to make real friends? Just make up a couple. I created elaborate backstories for mine, giving them families of their own and having them attend school with me. I even envisioned what their homes looked like. What I didn’t do is use my imaginary friends to hold my family hostage, as young Joshua does in Brandon Christensen’s Z, an effectively creepy supernatural thriller that sinks its claws into your arm immediately and doesn’t let go through the very end.

Beth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin Parsons (Sean Rogerson) live in suburban comfort with their eight year-old son Joshua (Jett Klyne). Joshua has trouble making friends, which wouldn’t normally be a big deal, except that he directs all that energy into a friendship with someone he calls Z, who only he can see. Z is the kind of imaginary friend who keeps Joshua up talking late at night, and demands only 2% milk. Beth is content to let Joshua have his fun, until it becomes quickly apparent that Z’s existence (such as it is) is having a negative effect on his behavior. She’s even more unsettled when she gets a gander at what Z looks like, thanks to an enormous drawing on Joshua’s bedroom wall. A J-horror nightmare of bulging eyes, grotesquely long limbs, and sharp teeth, it seems implausible that any child would want to befriend such a creature.

It doesn’t help that, for an imaginary friend, Z certainly seems to make his presence known to the entire household. He eats sandwiches that are put out for him (leaving the crusts behind), thumps around the house unseen, and tries to communicate via toys. It quickly becomes apparent that Z isn’t entirely a creation of Joshua’s mind, but something rather more insidious, and much harder to get rid of.

Clocking in at under ninety minutes, Z wastes not a second of time getting into the meat and bones of the story. It’s five minutes in before Z is first mentioned, and barely past ten before Joshua is expelled from school due to his disturbing behavior. Like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, it does an excellent job of illustrating how overwhelming small children, particularly little boys, can be. They’re loud, they’re frantic, and they never seem to stop, ever. Joshua doesn’t need attention, he demands it, occasionally with a cruel streak that one wonders would be there even if it weren’t for Z. He seems to take pleasure in putting his mother through the wringer to accommodate Z, while his father just indulges it and minimizes his behavior, even after Joshua commits a shocking act of violence against another child.

Clocking in at under ninety minutes, Z wastes not a second of time getting into the meat and bones of the story.

Also like The Babadook, it depicts the grim reality of parents who are left to care for a problem child without any sort of support system. Beth is almost immediately given the cold shoulder by the mothers of Joshua’s peers, a well-meaning but ineffectual psychiatrist (Stephen McHattie) brushes off Joshua’s clearly abnormal behavior as nothing to worry about, and her alcoholic sister (Sara Canning) is too wrapped up in her own problems to offer anything more than detached indifference. She can’t even present a united front with her own husband, who mocks her fears and is in denial that there’s anything wrong with Joshua at all.

Feeling a bit like a haunted house movie, Z initially treads no new ground. In fact, it’s even the second of two horror movies released in the past few months about imaginary friends gone horribly rogue, after Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real. It’s the third act, when Z is fully in control of the situation, that you won’t see coming. It becomes almost a bizarre domestic violence drama, culminating in a startlingly bleak conclusion. Z isn’t a fun horror movie, but it’s fast-paced and well-crafted, finding ways to turn the most mundane, seemingly innocent things malevolent. A child’s alphabet toy hasn’t been used this effectively since E.T. Never again will the sight of a plate of spaghetti and glass of milk in front of an empty place setting fill you with such dread.

If the movie takes any missteps, it’s in the handful of times Z actually appears on screen. It’s there that the limited budget of Z is apparent, and isn’t necessary. Christensen, along with co-screenwriter Colin Minihan, has created a new and deeply unsettling take on an old story that works without additional bells and whistles. Even when he’s not shown, Z’s presence is felt in every frame, like a cold draft in a sealed room.

Z is now streaming on Shudder.

Z Trailer:

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