DIRECTED BY BRANDON CHRISTENSEN
This review contains mild spoilers but no specifics
Often films about childhood fail to connect with what it’s like to be a child. However, the opening scene of Brandon Christensen’s newest outing Z is exemplary. Josh (Klyne), an outcast kid, plays with his toys, and the audience hears all the same sound effects he does in his head. We get the wooshing of his plane, and the chugging of his train – a kid’s imagination can be a beautiful thing. But, as he shoves some figurines in front of the train tracks, it can also be a violent thing.
This paradox lies at the heart of Z. Named after Josh’s imaginary pal, and pronounced “Zee”, it combines scary kid films with a supernatural/ mental-illness parallel that’s become fashionable since the story of Mr Babadook showed up on our collective doorstep. Think the early years of the last decade meets the later ones. At first, his parents Beth (Tracy) and Kevin (Rogerson) think it’s cute: at least their boy has found himself a buddy he can pretend the carpet is hot lava with. Then a bit annoying, since Beth has to prepare an extra meal every night and Z is super fussy about what milk he gets: he’s weight conscious, so drinks only low-fat. Finally, after Josh acts out at school by hitting and swearing at his classmates to the point of getting suspended, she finds Z scary – even if Kevin says it’s nothing serious. Still, lucky for her that Z isn’t real, right?
It presumably sounds like a concept you’ve seen in dozens of films before – and for the most part, it probably is. It’s familiar, right down to Josh’s vacant expressions every time he misbehaves, to mum suspecting something while dumb old dad stays oblivious. Individual setpieces also feel directly lifted from films like Sinister or the middle Paranormal Activity sequels: Josh does creepy drawings or speaks to someone that isn’t there, the ghost speaks through a toy etc. Yet something I’m coming to appreciate more nowadays is familiar bits like these can still be done dead well, by the right people. Maybe I’m becoming less snobby because by now it seems like I’ve seen everything before, but there were a handful of really chilling moments in Z. Granted, most of them are jumps – but here, they’re jumps which get given a viciousness I wasn’t expecting. There’s a scene in a play centre that got to me, and another shortly after that shows it wasn’t a one-off. Unlike Kevin, the film isn’t going to go easy on you. The escalation is also managed well, with eerie eccentricities gradually giving way to a sense of dread about how bad things are going to get.
The trouble is that as you may be getting comfortable in your discomfort, Z makes an abrupt transition from a haunted kid movie into a different, more abstract, sort of horror. It’s hardly From Dusk Till Dawn, as there’s no outright genre switch. Instead, Z goes from being like something you’ve seen before to something else you’ve seen before. Still, it’s worth avoiding spoilers for since the steps to takes us from one to the other are unexpected. The problem is that it’s a change in emphasis I think hurts the film, unconvincingly taking it from something tangible – a mum trying to save her son – into something more metaphorical. In doing so, it ceases to be about her saving Josh and becomes more about her. Often this sort of shift can be a good thing – many of the best movies of recent years have done something similar, and I like horrors to explore serious themes. However, to make audiences invested in the sorts of scenarios that we see later, we need the characters to be more developed – specifically, both Beth and Z.
There are emotional stakes, with the film going to lengths to show us how much Beth cares for her kid. It’s not just her physicality when she faces off against the eponymous threat – quieter bits like her unsuccessfully trying to set up a playdate can also be heart-breaking. It helps that Tracy throws everything she’s got into her part and stays utterly believable as a desperate mother. The trouble is that’s all she is. We know little else about her, except for a vague subplot about her upbringing that doesn’t warrant the explanatory power it gets as we go on. To avoid the film being generic, we need to be able to empathise more with her unique situation, and what Z means, rather than paying lip-service to thematic depths I don’t think are there. Unfortunately, we aren’t given enough context for either to personalise their conflict. Act three also suffers from a moment of unearned, and cruel, melodrama. The likes of which has now become common enough to be among my least favourite tropes.
What’s irritating is there are flourishes of greatness scattered throughout Z, like toys in a child’s room. Though for the sort of story it’s telling I think it remains too abstract and directionless. It barely seems about anything, yet rests on the audience treating the material as if it is. The first half is simple but effective scares – which is fine. Then we have a reasonable psychodrama, with approximately the right plot points but lacking the thematic sophistication needed to make them work. It’s an instance of the chosen format, of a no-nonsense haunting film, working against the storytelling – it needs a smarter foundation form which to work. Still, while he may not be your best friend of 2020 (and won’t be in your top 10 if you make a lot of horror friends this year), I don’t reckon viewers are going to regret spending time with Z. Under the right circumstances, I may even want to play with him again.
Z is out now on Shudder