With an increasing number of horror films eschewing the well-trodden path of gore, gags, and scream queens, there’s always the risk of re-calibrating too far to the other end of the scare spectrum. Over the last 20 years there’s been a trend towards melancholy and family trauma — Shudder calls it parental terror, we’re calling it melancholy horror. Sometimes the quiet and somber affairs work and sometimes they’re just weighty, boring, and devoid of scares. The Shudder original Z certainly ran that risk, but effectively shook itself off the melancholy mantle.
Released in 2019, Z follows an all-too-perfect family in their all-too-perfect house. The jovial and dismissive father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), and his tightly wound wife, Beth (Keegan Conner Tracy, Final Destination 2) are placed in the throws of dealing with their child Joshua’s (Jett Klyne, the Boy) new found imaginary pal “Z.” Initially Kevin and Beth write Joshua’s obsession off as a regular developmental phase. Joshua is for the most part a fairly normal kid with few ticks, no “thousand yard stares”, and no demonic caterwauling. As Z begins to consume Joshua’ life the terse behavioral problems being to surface. A dose of physical and verbal abuse of classmates, some choice language for teachers, and cutting class all land Joshua in double-secret academic probation.
Kevin refuses to acknowledge his child’s abhorrent behavior and Beth wants only to ply Joshua with ample doses of pharmaceuticals. Clearly conflicted with Joshua’s behavoir and themselves, Kevin and Beth decide to seek out the familiar counsel of Dr. Seager (Stephen McHattie, Pontypool). After analyzing Joshua and his pal Z, Dr. Seager isn’t terribly concerned with his condition, he is however, concerned with Beth! Beth’s been harboring some mighty nasty secrets for lo these many years and Z might just using Joshua as a conduit to get back inside Beth’s super-fragile thinker.
As the film unfolds audiences are put in the unenviable position of having to now track Beth and her son as Z fully infiltrates the family. Beth and her sister Jenna (Sarah Canning, The Banana Splits Movie) are also having to simultaneously deal with their mother who’s recently passed away. Joshua and Z deftly clue in on Beth’s dark past. Was Beth the child of abuse? Was her father the culprit? Was Beth’s mother complicit in this fiendish misdeed? These questions do get sorted out, but not in an entirely clear or suitable way.
Director Brandon Christensen (Still/Born) opts for a rather coy and distant exposition to get a the heart of Beth’s emotional/psychological problems. That’s not to say this approach will have you running for the theater exit and screaming about the fraudulent nature of Z. Quite the opposite. It’s this evasive approach that paradoxically allows the viewer to become part of the puzzle and work to understand the darker side of Beth’s family dynamics and her nagging illness. Keegan Conner Tracy (Beth) turns in a really powerful look at the pitfalls mental health. Paired with director Brandon Christensen’s slo-burn aesthetic, drab color palette, and some well-placed scary-scares, make Z a solid entry in to the world of melancholy horror.
Z is likely Rated R and currently streaming on Shudder.