The Scariest Thing Dead List: A Whole Bunch of Back to School Films!

ATMOSfx! Woo!
As Summer fades into fall, we leave the summer camps behind and prepare for the thrill and dread of millions. We’re going back to school! Nooooo!!!

Horror, for generations, has been reliant upon finding fresh minions… I mean fans… culled from the ranks of teenagers. There is a reason why so many genre films are teen-centric. It’s the time of expanding your boundaries, and facing your hopes and fears of the future just in front of you, and the back-to-school themes marry up your biggest fears and put them in a very familiar setting.

Though not unique to the teen years, this is a time of heightened angst for the age group. Body horror fears of “What have I become!?!?!” (AKA Puberty) combined with the pressure of sexual awakening, and the peer pressure so prevalent in your teens all get manifested in the school-themed genre films. They also explore the dread and maliciousness of bullying and being the outsider. So many adolescents just want to fit in, as the social pecking order gets clearly defined, and roles are handed out. But school can be cruel. And the movies know how to exploit these themes.

Let’s face it, being a teenager can suck, and horror movies are the outlet for many to apply those feelings to something they can bond with.

Not surprisingly, there are few horror movies about elementary school or even junior high. It can be tough enough to kill off one child, but to do so to multiple kids has been verboten for generations of films, and are now only coming to the fore. There are a few exceptions, though, and one that looks good that hasn’t gotten its wide release yet is the Lupita Nyong’o vehicle Little Monsters.

For this exercise, We’re not just talking about teenager movies or else films like Scream and Halloween would show up on this list, but school and school-mates were not endemic to the plots of those films. To be considered for this list there has to be a classroom, school grounds, a dormitory/sorority/fraternity house, or a school bus in the film to identify it as going back to school. Considering that, I am discounting the summer camp horror teenager killing sprees. I’m thinking that a summer-break dead list may be in order, so in that way movies like Friday the 13th, The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, and Class of ’84 will get their reference.

This Dead List is not a “best” list, rather it’s an aggregate of notable films of the sub-genre. Some of them are pretty lousy, but most of them range from good to classics. To hear more about some of these selections tune into our Podcast Episode 74!

So sharpen up those #2 pencils. Get your Peechee folders out, and try to remember what your locker combination is because the class is back in session! Good, bad, and a bunch of them in-between… here is a prominent roster of back-to-school genre films.

Diabolique (1955)

Our first offering is a bit of an outlier compared to the rest, as this is a French thriller that is focused on the teachers and administrators. Michel, the wicked headmaster of a neglected boarding school is targeted for killing by his wife, a teacher who also owns the school, and his mistress, one of the other teachers. It’s a twisty love triangle with an interesting wrinkle in that the women, rather than becoming rivals, are conspirators in his killing. But things do not go according to plan, and it appears that Michel may have come back from the dead. It’s a fabulous twisty noir production, and so much more nuanced and complex compared to many of the films to follow.

I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

The 1950s is when teenagers started to assert their independence and flocked to matinee offerings at the theaters. It is rather surprising that given all the B-movies that were produced in the era, with junior delinquency exploitation films like So Young So Bad (1950), Girl Gang (1954), and The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957) being produced to scandalous reputations, there was not a concurrent teen horror exploitation movement. There was, however, I was a Teenage Werewolf and I was a Teenage Frankenstein that sold the bill of goods that was teenage angst of the time. A strong allegory for the changing of adolescent bodies, and rampant teenage desires, Samuel Arkoff produced these landmark cheesy offerings that still entertain to this day. I was a Teenage Werewolf also elevated Michael Landon’s career, pre-Little House on the Prarie. Hey, you take your breaks when you can get them, right?

Black Christmas (1974)

Here is the blueprint of what is to follow for the multitude of sorority house slasher films to come. Black Christmas is a landmark film in so many ways, this is a foundational trope-building film. The killer is in the house. The creepy stalker on the phone. The peeping tom. And… the sorority house of horrors. The sorority sisters never actually are shown going to class, but the sorority house itself is practically a character in its own right. Every closet, every nook is a potential hiding spot for the killer, and it is crafted as well as any haunted house. This film features standout performances by Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon and Andrea Martin in one of the best acted, best-shot slasher films ever made.

Massacre at Central High (1975)

If you can find a good working copy of this forgotten gem, you are in luck. It is currently not streaming anywhere, and video copies are hard to come by. However, this movie is a fascinating mash-up of the juvenile hooligan movie and a revenge flick by way of a western framework. Darrell Maury plays David, the new kid at a high school dominated by a gang that lords over all the other students with brute force and intimidation. As a child, he rescued Mark (Andrew Stevens) from being beaten up by the in-crowd gang, and now the two are at odds as David rains death upon the bullies in order to wrest control of the school from the tyranny of the gang. This film was highlighted by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel back in the 1980s when they included it in their famed Guilty Pleasures offerings. Both critics lauded the movie as a refreshing antidote to the dead teenager genre while being definitively a dead teenager movie. Hopefully, one of the vintage restoration DVD producers like Vinegar Syndrome picks it up, or Shudder re-discovers this lost feature.

Carrie (1976)

As many of you know, It has taken a long time for me to finally see this movie. And, without reservation, I can say that to this day, the material holds up, and this is a stone-cold classic. A five-star film worthy of all the praise heaped on it over the years and establishing Sissy Spacek and Brian DePalma as emerging giants of the industry. Spacek’s Carrie is one of the most compelling characters to grace the genre screen, and she puts on an emotional tour-de-force that was Oscar-worthy. Beaming joy. Crippling embarrassment. Shy coy sweetness. Wild-eyed rage. She brought it all. DePalma constructed Stephen King’s tale into a tower of tea-cups of a plot during the course of the film, always teetering on the brink of horrific collapse, and when it does, it’s a sight to behold. This is the apex film of the back-to-school horror genre, full stop.

Prom Night (1980)

Ready to get your disco on? Jamie Lee Curtis cements her position as the Queen of Scream Queens, in what was a run of several slasher movies, starting with Halloween, continuing with Terror Train, and bookending with Prom Night. This straight-up, but effective horror movie, that uses that well-worn chestnut of a trope, the death of a child inspires bloody revenge (Friday the 13th, anyone?), the most memorable part of this entry into the otherwise by-the-books film is getting to see Jamie Lee turn in a pretty respectable disco dance sequence. And, a little bit of dancing from Leslie Nielsen as her principal dad. The movie aimed to be clever by proposing a whole slew of potential killers out there, in a cheap Agatha Christie way. And the movie suffers a bit in the horror department for being a slasher movie where they don’t execute the kills very well… except for one brilliant decapitation.

The Class of 1984 (1982)

This is the preeminent fear of students movie, produced at the height of the fear of punks moment in the early ’80s, which as many of the ’80s Reagan era pop culture fear-mongering (Dungeons and Dragons, Heavy Metal, Video Games) proved out to be inconsequential. Nevertheless, this movie is a crackerjack thriller worth watching. Perry King is Mr. Norris, the new music teacher in a school overrun with juvenile delinquent punks. We’ve seen variants of this tale before, in movies like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me the tough love teacher/principal inspires his rogue charges to reform themselves and become model students. Not so much this time. This is the dark flip side of that equation, and tough love doesn’t work as well as straight-out violence does. Perhaps more aligned with the juvenile delinquent variant of grindhouse than straight-up horror, this is still an exceedingly brutal variant that certainly puts you on edge. Timothy Van Patten owns every scene he’s in as Peter Stegman, the thuggish leader of the school punks.

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

Well, girls, now you’ve gone too far. Seven sorority sisters, fearing that their graduation party will get thwarted by their harsh house Mother, decide to pull a prank on her so that they can get their party on. Unfortunately for everyone involved the prank goes horribly, violently wrong. Rather than having a great graduation, the poor young ladies get the receiving end of the wrath of a vengeful killer. This is a prototype mix-up of the campus killer and final girl tropes. Mike has graciously finished up a full review of the film HERE.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Somewhat lost in the fantastical elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, is that this started off as a tale of high school students who are the victims of Freddy Kruger’s terrifying wrath. Nancy, Rod, Tina, and Glen are just ordinary high school kids, who share the same concurrent dream. In proud Final Girl trope standards, Nancy is the smart virginal one who figures out the scenario, while Tina and Rod get death by having sex (sort of) and Glen is the unreliable lookout who pays the ultimate price. Johnny Depp, is the first of three Hollywood Icons on this list to actually have an impactful horror movie as his feature debut. (Clooney and Pitt’s movies were rather forgettable affairs.) This movie is not school-centric, but enough representation of the kids as students to give this a pass for this dead list.

Teen Wolf (1985)

This is a goofy and hugely successful riff on I was a Teenage Werewolf, which demonstrates the power of the 1958 predecessor as a high school light-horror dramedy. This is Michael J. Fox at the height of his powers. He was in the middle of his Family Ties run and Back to the Future came out the same year. Being short of stature (5′-4″) meant a couple of things for Fox. One, it helped that he could still pass for a teenager at the age of 24 when he filmed it. And two, there is a near impossibility that he could dunk a basketball. So, in many ways, this is a wish-fulfillment movie. The forgotten kid in school gets new powers and now gets the girl and becomes a high school sports legend… he just has to reveal that he’s also a werewolf. To call this a horror movie is a gigantic reach, but it definitely borrows from all the elements of the werewolf genre, except the basketball.

Slaughter High (1987)

Lost in the backwash of high school-themed horror movies in the ’80s is this low-budget schlock-fest. It stars the gorgeous Caroline Munro, an actress then in her 30’s playing a high school student who plays a prank on the chemistry nerd, Marty (Simon Scuddamore, in his only film before he committed suicide) to the delight and complicity of a large group of High School bullies. This is a poorly acted and poorly edited movie. But, it has high entertainment value for counting all the horror tropes and cliches that they possibly could. The car won’t start. A sacrificial black character dies first. Oblivious gym teacher. Endless chase down hallways re-shot to pad the film. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is as if the movie was created as an assemblage of tropes to make a janky generic horror title, and if that’s what producers were after, they succeeded.

Return to Horror High (1987)

Worth watching, if only to see George Clooney’s feature film debut. He plays a supporting role, and he looks SO YOUNG. The movie is a rather meh production that is somewhat clever in that it revolves around a film crew setting up a movie inside an abandoned school where several murders have taken place. Once filming starts, the killings start again, and multiple red herring suspects offered up. The movie comes off ham-fisted, like an over-cooked Agatha Christie story, with clumsy plot twists and an awkward told-by-flashback narrative. But… you do get to see a young Clooney, for Clooney completionists.

Cutting Class (1988)

Back to back Hollywood icon debuts! This time it’s Brad Pitt, in a more consequential role, but in a less interesting movie. (Yes, even less interesting than the rather sloppy Return to Horror High.) The Movie pits Pitt (pun intended) as the high school “bad boy” and Donovan Leitch as the potential psychopath (Did he kill his dad?) as paramours for the prettiest girl in class. Then killings start happening at school. Who did it? Probably one of these two dudes, but of course, both of the boys in question are so dreamy that their sketchy backgrounds are worth ignoring. And, that’s what most people did with this movie. They ignored it. But, again, if you are a Brad Pitt fan, you can start here. His acting is OK, but you don’t see a Hollywood megastar in this film.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)

Before there was Sarah Michelle Gellar there was Kristi Swanson. The whole notion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer played right into the 90’s zeitgeist of teen TV dramas of the time, the Beverly Hills 90210, Degrassi, and Melrose Place with pretty Angelinos and their rich kid issues. But Buffy did something clever. They infused a wackiness that was absent in those teen dramas and were much more self-conscious of the tropes of both horror films and swoony prime-time teen soap operas. Featuring the late great Rutger Hauer, the gone-too-soon Luke Perry, and the resurgent Paul Reubens (Really, does ANYBODY get a better death scene than him?), this feature had so much wit, charm, and self-deprecation about it that the WB transformed it into one of the definitive High School horror productions in any medium with the long-running television show of the same name.

The Craft (1995)

Attitude! We’ve got attitude here! Few horror movies create wardrobe trends like The Craft. This film battles Ginger Snaps for Queen of the Hill for disaffected Goth Girl horror. These four young witches go from outcasts and pariahs to dominating the school, and they strut, preen, and flaunt their independence in the halls. The slow-motion struts they perform Fairuza Balk snarls her way through and demands the camera’s attention as the coven’s assertive alpha. Neve Campbell is the shoe-gazing scarred introvert. Robin Tunney is the “New Girl” and the bland protagonist. And Rachel True gets to be the black confidant! (It’s the ’90s, and we’re still a ways from better representation… True gives her nuanced take on her role in Horror Noir, a must-see documentary.) The film has a simple color-by-numbers feel to it, but it was a touchstone film for many high school girl horror fans, and that makes this a significant landmark pop-horror piece.

The Faculty (1998)

This is a solid movie outing by director Robert Rodriguez, featuring a stellar cast of B-list adults (Famke Janssen, BeBe Neuwirth, Piper Laurie, Robert Patrick, Salma Hayak, and Jon Stewart) and will-be stars Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, and Clea Duvall. The premise that that aliens have taken over the bodies of the teachers at Herrington High as the first wave of the conquering of the planet is a body-snatching trope, but well-executed. This is one of the most school centric of all of the offerings in this list. The moment where all trust breaks down amongst the kids, I said out loud “DO THE BLOOD TEST!” And, though they didn’t do the full MacReady, they did concoct a similar plan. I was pleased as punch.

Battle Royale (2000)
“And that’s how you shoot a ketchup bottle!”

Kids killing kids for the competition is the theme here. Many have made the connection between this movie and the Hunger Games, as they both feature groups of young teenagers competing in a spiraling circle of murder as punishment for student resistance in a near-future totalitarian Japanese state. These kids actively want to be part of the battle, as much Much more savage and less slick than the Hunger Games, this film has a grungier more brutal take on the trope and absolutely nails it. It took a while for this film to catch on as the savagery upon 9th-grade kids on kids worried the producers, so it was not released initially in the United States when the film was produced in 2000. But the movie was a hit in Japan and paved the way for the less visceral but equally compelling Hunger Games to come.

Ginger Snaps (2000)

I mentioned this film before in reference to The Craft. They share similar profiles, but whereas The Craft played to a wide audience, and was culturally influential, I would argue that this film plays more strongly to the horror crowd. It has a real independent spirit behind it, and the horror is legitimate and real. This film also pairs lycanthropy with menses in a very meaningful and effective way. The potent combination of the outsider’s dilemma and the physiological changes in a young woman’s body comes together seamlessly in one of the best werewolf movies ever made. A curious pattern that has evolved over the years with high school horror is the presence of PE and sports as flashpoints for horror. It happens in Carrie, The Faculty, Slaughter High, and it serves as a way to draw out conflict in this film too.

Jennifer’s Body (2008)

Megan Fox is a Jennifer, a demon who requires consuming human flesh to remain looking like… Megan Fox. Her demonic form is the result of a struggling metal band’s attempted ritual sacrifice of a virgin (She wasn’t) and she came back as a demon brought back to prey on her high school peers in Devil’s Kettle Minnesota. Amanda Seyfried is her best friend Needy, a nerdy and dowdy student who is trying to make sense of the whole thing. This is pure schlock, but it does it all with a knowing wink and Fox vamps around, chewing up the scenery. It’s got a bit of girl power for the female fans out there. And for the boys out there… it’s Megan Fox.

No surprisingly, this film ended up as one of our Sexy Horror recommendations in podcast Episode 92.

Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003)

Before I get too far into this synopsis, it must be stated that the Director of the Jeepers Creepers films, Victor Salva, is himself a creep. Convicted as for sexual abuse of a minor and child pornography, it’s remarkable that he’s allowed to make films, or to make films about teenagers at all. Now, I can also say, this guy is like a junior varsity version of Roman Polanski. IRL he’s a vile human, but he also made one of the great slasher films of the past 20 years in Jeepers Creepers. The second outing isn’t nearly the film that the first one was, but it has a number of dedicated fans. It involves the winged Creeper demon descending upon a Banner High school bus where the school basketball team and cheerleaders are returning from a game. The creeper is finishing his 23 days of feasting on the local population, and the kids on the bus are in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Simple plot. High Body count. And, as a bonus, a bit of anti-racism and anti-homophobia messaging. Maybe this is Salva’s way of repenting for his earlier sins.

Detention (2011)

Detention is a full school saturation film by way of the music video. This is a movie for the millennial generation. This pop-culture-aware film by Joseph Kahn, who had made a career doing music videos for Taylor Swift, Shakira, and Mariah Carey brought that sensibility to this feature of a copycat serial killer threatening the kids of Grizzly Lake High. As if detention didn’t suck, to begin with, now there’s Cinderhella (the killer) to contend with. Lots of movie and music references and text narratives make this a horror movie in the era of Twitter. Some great touches include a continuous pan shot that transforms musical styles and clothing fashion in one smooth pan. That’s the video director at play. It’s a youthful film for a youthful audience.

Cooties (2014)
Wade (Rainn Wilson) is pursued by a pack of giddy zombie children. Stay in character, kids!

Here we have the most explicitly grade-school film. A bevy of strong comedic character actors including Rainn Wilson, Elijah Wood, Jack McBrayer, and Allison Pill are teachers who are under siege from a school full of kids who have eaten a bad batch of dubious chicken nuggets and have become slavering mini-zombies. It is light fun, and seeing the packs of kids descending upon the stunned faculty is a hoot. It’s also a lot bloodier than I expected, though, for the most part, it’s the adults who get the evisceration. If you have a movie dependent on children as a major factor in the movie, it’s hard enough to get one great performance, so if you need mobs of kids who can’t act very well, make them zombies! The downside is that the kids had a hard time not having fun doing the shoot as this image shows. Zombies don’t smile, kids.

F (2015) : AKA The Expelled

And now, it’s the teacher’s turn! Often in back-to-school horror, the teachers are an afterthought, ineffectual, or downright villainous. Well, the tables are turned here. This is slashers vs. teachers in a North London Comprehensive School. It pits a burned-out teacher, Richard Anderson (David Schofield), who has been beaten by one of his students, forced to face down a group of hoodie-clad murderous young thugs while monitoring detention. This is a siege movie, and comparisons of Assault on Precinct 13 would be pretty accurate. The antagonists here are largely faceless killers, and stalk the dark hallways like feral animals, leaping around parkour-style with athletic grace. There is very much a generational paranoia component here, where the teens are beings to be feared, and the adults are the victims, and the ultimate sign of disrespect is dismemberment in high body count offering.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

Do you like dark and grim horror? Oz Perkins, son of the late great Anthony Perkins has delivered a slow-burning and bleak tale of two girls, Kate and Rose who are the last two girls left at a girl’s catholic boarding school over the Christmas holiday. Kate is an eccentric freshman, and Rose is a bit of a scheming senior, and the two of them wait for their rides to come. Something sinister, perhaps demonic, or perhaps something psychotic enters into the framework of the story, but to reveal how it plays out is to spoil the story. At the same time, a parallels side story of a female hitchhiker unspools, and it is a little difficult to see how the story fits together, but when it does, it’s devastating. This is a complex and layered story that is a bleak and nihilistic film, that is expertly told but will make you feel hollowed out at the end

Happy Death Day (2017)

This movie is so much better than it had any reason to be. Tree Gelbman starts the movie as a bitter bitchy sorority girl at fictional Bayfield University, only to get trapped in a repeating circle of her own inescapable murder. These are the Groundhog Day rules in effect, except with a lot more dying. The reason why it works so well is the expressive quality of Jessica Rothe, who manages to pull off the redemptive story arc really smoothly, without seeming trite or forcing it. What’s more, she really seems to be enjoying herself here. The campus is a fabulous immersive set, and the film takes you all over the campus, with some of the most memorable moments taking place in the Campus Quad. The sequel, though not as enjoyable still packs in the collegiate charm into the story… though I think the cast will have aged out of school for a third sequel.

Raw (2017)

Raw features a bit of a unique twist to the collegiate life, in that this takes place in a French Veterinary school, where Juliette (Garance Marillier) goes through a transformative change in her life. This time it’s not puberty, but crossing over from being a vegan to being a cannibal! The school plays an important symbolic role, as themes of carnivorous lifestyle, the dissection, and care of animals, and life in the dormitories are explored. In addition to being one of the best-spun horror stories of the last five years, it also saturates itself in the life of a college student better than most films about college, horror or not. The bullying and hazing come off differently here, as the upperclassmen harass the plebes, (rather than a singling out as so often is the case in these films). Juliette has a hard time processing this, and it’s the awkward relationship between her and her sister Alex that takes center stage. Juliette is one of the great central figures of horror who is both the protagonist and antagonist of her own story.

Vampire Clay (2017)

This slice of the mondo bizarro is about the struggles of art school students in a Japanese art prep studio, who accidentally start working with clay that has been cursed and set out to transform all the students into sentient, vampiric golems. Yes, Vampire Clay is about as weird as it sounds. There are heavy scholastic themes here too. The fear of not making the grade, creatively or financially comes to bear. Competitive craftsmanship, jealousy, and trust issues also figure prominently in the story, until the kids realize that their peers have been overcome by this insidious pottery plasticine. If you like a bit of gonzo in your back-to-school features, this is definitely worth checking out.

The Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are back to the genre that made them famous! Add in Michael Sheen, Finn Cole, and Asa Butterfield, and you have Hogwarts, horror style, for all these actors who may have been the only British film actors not to get a role in the Harry Potter movies. It’s a bit of a kitchen sink story with all sorts of monsters and threats thrown against the school, where the kids are all sent to themed houses and they get to wear these nifty sweaters and coats. It’s light fun, but it really could have used the writing of Edgar Wright to top it off, as the whole endeavor, while enjoyable comes off rather light. But still, it’s Hogwarts + Horror and that’s worth at least one viewing.

I Kill Giants (2018)

I Kill Giants is a dark fantasy tale of an odd adolescent girl, Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who in an effort to cope with the loss of her father and the looming loss of an ailing mother turns to a Quixotic mission to protect her town from perceived giants. Barbara has taken a Dungeons and Dragons hero affectation, and her curious behavior has weirded out her classmates and her older sister who is now in charge of the family welfare. But Barbara has found a Sancho Panza in the form of Sophia (Sydney Wade) who is the new kid in school and finds Barbara’s manic adventurism fascinating. Zoe Saldana plays the sympathetic school counselor who tries to make sense of young Barbara, who stubbornly refuses to conform to the expected norms. You see much of the film from Barbara’s perspective, and the giants are fearsome and fantastic. This is a great gateway genre film, light on the horror, but heavy with the themes of back-to-school scares.

Mon Mon Mon Monsters (2017)

This Taiwanese production takes a multifaceted view of the perils of bullying. Shu-Wei (Yu Kiai-Teng) is an awkward young high school student who has been mercilessly picked on by a gang of boys at school, and we are introduced to him as his class has accused him of stealing the funds from the school field trip kitty. He is innocent of course, but it’s all set up by the impish Ren-Hau (Kent Tsai) and his crew. Eventually, the teacher decides to send all Shu-Wei and the gang of bullies into the slums to do community service for the elderly as punishment for the ordeal. Instead of actually taking care of the elderly, they play cruel and nasty games with the residents of the projects. As they actively neglect the elderly tenants, they stumble across a pair of young ghoul girls, who have been preying on the nearby homeless and aged residents. The boys capture the younger of the two ghouls and turn their abusive behavior on her, not knowing that her powerful sister is hunting them. In this movie, the real monsters are the bullying boys and not the ghouls, and it is satisfying to see the older ghoul wreck house in her efforts to save her sister.

Pledge (2019)

Have you gotten a sense that back to school themes rely heavily on bullying? Well, if you’ve gotten this far into the list, you should know… it’s a thing. Pledge goes across the street from the usual horror locale of the sorority house and brings it to the frat house. Or to be more precise: a fake fraternity. A group of awkward college buddies are having a hard time being cool enough to get into the traditional fraternity houses, so when they get an invitation to a super-secret house, and they are treated like kings of the campus, they can’t resist. Unfortunately for them, this fraternity is actually a cult, and what starts out as familiar hazing turns into savage torture, and the lads are now trapped in a house at the mercy of a group of sadistic cultists. If it looks too good to be true… you know the adage. What I like about this film is that it breaks a lot of the tropes. The conclusion and the survivors are not what you would expect. The pace of the film is near perfect, and it nicely rides the balance of letting you in on the plot thread, while also throwing enough curves in there that you get some nice surprises.

Daniel Isn’t Real (2019)
Patrick Schwarzenegger is a tattooed cheat sheet in Daniel Isn’t Real (2019

Leaning on an imaginary friend as a college student, in order to adapt to the social structures of adult life is a dubious choice by Luke (Miles Robbins). Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Luke have a long-standing relationship (if that’s what you call an imaginary buddy) which was ended when Daniel convinced Luke to poison his mother as a chiled, leaving Daniel banished. But now Luke is struggling to adapt as an independent young man and college, so he conjures up Daniel again to help him adapt. At first, it’s great. Luke is finding and meeting girls. He’s succeeding at school, and importantly it has given Luke purpose and confidence. But Daniel is playing the long game. After initially being a supportive and helpful angel on Luke’s shoulder, the devil takes over and begins manipulating Daniel with malicious intent. This is a sophisticated take on the sub-genre, earning the good buzz it got from this year’s festival circuit.

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