The absence of movie theatres, closed due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, has stolen from us the communal experience of the horror movie. And perhaps that can be a good thing. With viewers stuck at home, the domestic horror has gained a new value to the wind blowing through an empty house, or the fear of what lurks in the next room. Sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum to Costa-Gavras’ alphabetically synonymous film, the direct-to-Shudder Z is a low-budget horror that benefits from the new normal, and goes to far out places, even as it remains fairly predictable from moment to moment.
Brandon Christensen, the Las Vegas-based director of the Rosemary’s Baby riff Still/Born, opens his latest pedophobic outing with a child’s view of the world. While little Joshua Parsons (Jett Klyne) plays with his toys in a series of extreme close ups, doting mother Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) pays neurotic attention to his development. “You finally gave in,” she says with recognisible scorn at a fellow mother who’s acquiesced to letting her kid stare at an iPad. Technology seems like an appealing escape, compared to the grey Canadian suburbia that cinematographer Bradley Stuckel captures crisply on the Red Scarlet-W Dragon.
Elizabeth is also worried about Joshua’s dependence on an imaginary friend, Z. This friend sits at dinner and gets a slice of pizza. Z only likes 2% milk, as Joshua insists whenever a parent takes a bottle of full fat out of the fridge. Elizabeth is immediately extremely concerned about Z, screaming “What are we going to do about it?” at her bemused husband Kevin (Sean Rogerson) as they brush their teeth. He doesn’t believe her, as is the custom in the domestic horror film. It’s clear enough where this is leading, but Christensen and co-writer Colin Minihan have fun taking the viewer there, and they don’t waste any time. Within 10 minutes, a train seems to have eyes in the dark and an unknown number is calling Elizabeth’s phone. Joshua is a strange kid not because he takes a game of the-floor-is-made-of-lava too seriously, but because he has a photo of himself on his bedside table. With a sinister comb over, he is soon inevitably suspended from school for violent behaviour. Inevitably, he blames his bad behaviour on Z.
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Joshua’s parents take him to a super creepy psychologist played by Canadian cinema stalwart Stephen McHattie, who prescribes Joshua medication that only makes matters worse. Tension builds until a legitimately excellent jump scare lands, suddenly propelling the story forward with a sickening undertone of violence. One would be forgiven for sensing a whiff of The Brood here, while a British viewer will struggle not to read the similarities between Z and the 1993 Jamie Bulger case, where two 10-year-old boys, reportedly influenced by watching Child’s Play, abducted and murdered the two-year-old Bulger in Liverpool. Elizabeth’s desperation to keep Joshua away from screens can’t stop his violent impulses — the fact that she discovers her own key memories through a video screen herself implies that the film’s interest in the relationship between images, memory and imagination, although barely extrapolated by the plot, lurks in Z’s DNA.
As the scares consistently come not from the child himself, but from objects that recall childhood like an electronic alphabet set and anthropomorphic toys, it starts to become clear that Elizabeth is harbouring her own childhood trauma. With Elizabeth’s mother in a hospice, and her hard-drinking sister refusing to visit as “it might make me feel sorry for her,” Tracy’s slowly unravelling performance offers a glimpse into the origins of Elizabeth’s uptight paranoia.
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Soon, Joshua is drawing Z on the walls as a golem-like figure, and staring creepily at ceiling fans, which rotate with an awful noise as though the viewer is back in the Palmer household from Twin Peaks. Christensen makes decent use of space. He makes Kevin an architect, and the Parsons’ isolated, grand new build is full of lines: corners and doorways and angles that frame the characters. It gives some dynamism to the budgetarily enforced flatness of the visuals. Even when Elizabeth takes Joshua to an indoor play zone, it’s a trampoline maze of squares and cubes. Even the letter Z is sharp and hard. The Palmers yearn for domestic bliss, but the bleak “Live, Laugh, Love” posters that adorn the walls betray their hollow lives. What are they living for? Who really are they?
Z never really answers these questions as it leans more and more on jump scares and CGI. These effects aim for expressionism, but are goofier than a Resident Evil outing. As Elizabeth attempts to save Joshua by reconfiguring Z’s attachment to her child onto herself, the film takes a risky and potentially fascinating lurch into the abject. Elizabeth dresses as a child and plays house with Z as though he’s her own imaginary friend. Whether it’s a ritual of hide and seek or the mother making sure to pour an extra glass of 2% milk, the film almost begins to explore performance and identity before it is pulled back onto the rigid path of the 83-minute runtime. Stuck with the obligation to wrap up its every plot thread, Z completely loses its way in the last 15 minutes, and most of the good will it had accrued in the en route. As a genre exercise, Z shows promise for what Christensen might do with a higher budget. It makes for good quarantine viewing, but one wishes for a version of the film that does more to eke out the subtext from this well trodden ground.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.