With James Wan being recruited to big superhero Blockbusters, horror fans have been left to quench their thirst for terrifying original content through Conjuring spin-offs and Stephen King adaptations. It’s hard to come by original horrors crafted with the sole intent to scare, but we called and Z came.
Written and directed by Brandon Christensen, Z is his second feature after 2017’s Still/Born, a frightening film surrounding a grieving mother, post-partum depression, and an unknown entity. Continuing the theme of “parenting is terrifying business”, Z introduces audiences to a new entity, this one appearing to a family under the guise of a harmless imaginary friend. But we all know we’re heading into a horror film. Z is not going to be happy playing building blocks forever. Things are about to get terrifying. I sure hope you have 2% milk on hand..
Elizabeth (Beth) Parsons (Keegan Connor Tracy, Final Destination 2) loves her son Joshua (Jett Klyne, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). She wants nothing but the best for him. A quiet, odd kid, Josh has trouble fitting in – so he befriends Z, an invisible pal only he can see. Beth is wary, Josh is already having trouble at school and maintaining friendships with his peers. Father Kevin (Sean Rogerson, Grave Encounters), doesn’t think they should worry, that kids will be kids.
At first, Z seems to be bringing out a fun, imaginative side to Josh. He plays with his super-heroes and creates inventive games with his pal. But then things start to take a turn. Josh gets suspended from school, and his only friend and carpool buddy grows afraid of him. Beth and Kevin take Josh to a therapist (Stephen McHattie, Pontypool) who recommends they merely need to “be the friend that he needs” and that Josh will be able to separate himself from Z.
But Z might not be just a manifestation of an imaginative and lonely young boy. While following the psychiatrist’s advice and taking Josh to play at the neighbourhood funzone, Beth gets a jarring, visual glimpse of Z – and she becomes hellbent to get to the bottom of it. Is Z real? Why has Z attached itself to her son?
Z would be happy to share.
“The terror of seeing Z is visually startling, but the real craft of the scare comes down to timing and small touches.”
Lets talk scares. Z is an indie flick, so less is more with our creature encounters. But even though our interactions with Z are on the sparser side, Brandon Christensen knows how to make the most out of his horror beats. The terror of seeing Z is visually startling, but the real craft of the scare comes down to timing and small touches. Christensen is a director who understands the tension in timing, the build-up of anticipation, and how to immerse an audience in atmosphere; monster sightings or none. But – monster junkies, don’t get deterred. I don’t want to spoil any of Z’s time to shine, but know that I physically jumped in my seat several times throughout the film, and there were sequences that I literally needed to shut my eyes – even though I had a review to write (this one.)
Z also shines as a character journey for Beth – exploring past traumas, unearthing family history, and the weight of motherhood. I’ve been a huge fan of Keegan Connor Tracy since her devastatingly wonderful death in Final Destination 2, but seeing her embodiment of a suburban mother go from exacerbated to terrified to traumatized, is quite the trip. At one point in the film, Beth gets in touch with her childlike self, and Tracy’s physical transformation during that sequence is unnervingly convincing. Her hair falls in her face, her chin droops, and she sinks into her shoulders, all while retaining a juvenile stature.
“The scares are intense, expertly paced, and keep audiences on their toes – never sure just what to expect, or from where.”
Z does dip a bit in intensity near the middle, and I found the stakes during this section a little confusing rather than hair-raising. We explore some interesting character turns, but unfortunately, terror does get sacrificed en-route. The film also uses the therapist’s role to convey some of the plot’s rather zany ideas (like that Z is an entity and not an imaginary friend), which seems off for an authoritative character. It’s not that he can’t believe unorthodox things, but I needed more time with him to believe he could jump from psychological assessments to parapsychological so quickly.
Overall, Z is a chilling film with a creative and original monster. The scares are intense, expertly paced, and keep audiences on their toes – never sure just what to expect, or from where. A tighter second-half with a touch more terror would have elevated this flick, but it succeeds in being a horror not to be missed.