Directed by Brandon Christensen. Screenplay by Christensen & Colin Minihan.
Starring Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Klyne, Sean Rogerson, Sara Canning, Stephen McHattie, Chandra West, Ali Webb, Deborah Ferguson, & Luke Moore.
Digital Interference Productions / Hadron Films
Not Rated / 83 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★★★Kids can be real creepy. That’s why they’re great characters for horror, and why a child’s world is the perfect setting for a few scares. Z uses the creepy kid premise as a kick-off to explore the darker side of having an imaginary friend. And while the first half of the film is focused on a child, the darkness spreads to look at the child’s parent, becoming a film that acts as a great allegory about hereditary mental illness.
The story follows Beth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson) Parsons. Their little boy Josh (Jett Klyne) is having trouble making real friends, until he develops an imaginary one named Z. Beth and Kevin aren’t worried, but after a little while Z seems to have an unnerving influence over their boy’s mind. Things get a whole lot worse after Beth talks to Dr. Seager (Stephen McHattie) and she starts to remember something eerie about her own past that puts Josh’s predicament into chilling perspective.
Z is effective enough as a tale of an evil entity invading a family’s life, refusing to let go from one generation to the next. It’s got several genuine jump scares that’ll rattle your bones. The lasting effect of the film is in its allegory of how mental illness attaches itself to us, to the point we sometimes find comfort in it— the same as a child does with their imaginary friend. Most important, Beth’s struggle to save her son and family is nearly eclipsed by Z attempting to befriend her son, in effect a representation of hereditary illness passing from parent to child.
The film touches on a few different things, not only depression/mental health issues. One such focus is modern loneliness in children. In a 21st-century world of constant connection— an era of smartphones and social media— where can a kid with no friends turn if not to their own imagination? We see Josh deal with isolation before Z manifests himself. His closest friend seems more interested in staring at his phone than interacting genuinely. No one at school is rushing to befriend him, either. Josh’s own alienated state and isolation causes the same effects in his parents which comes out in the division between Beth and Kevin. The parents each start keeping secrets from the other— albeit Beth’s transgression is slightly more serious as she takes to drugging their son with pills in milk.
A by-product of Josh’s alienation causes violence through Z’s presence. I feel like this reflects the way boys specifically respond to being socially isolated and, in a way, ostracised. Young boys who don’t quite fit in, like Josh, turn inward, and people chastise or ridicule them for doing so, like Beth even does occasionally, and the other kids at school do too, only meaner. This all culminates in Josh seemingly being responsible for a nasty act of violence against a friend from school. It feels relevant to the world we live in today, where young boys are lead down a violent path due to social isolation and loneliness— on a grand, horrifying scale, it’s what we’ve been witnessing since the Columbine High School shooting, what we see in the streets of America every couple weeks with each new spree of murder by gun usually committed by a young white male. More than that, Z’s role in the story is an allegory of the way mental illness affects an individual, as well as how it can be a family’s own hereditary plague.
“It’s been waiting for you”
Z himself is an anthropomorphic vision of depression (et cetera) as a corporeal illness, rather than solely psychological as many people understand it. One of the especially vivid, scarier moments throughout the film is when Beth crawls into bed and Z gets in, too. He curls up invisibly next to her, pulling her tight against him— a metaphor of mental illness as an intimate partner, never allowing the sufferer to escape.
All the pain and discomfort of mental illness is anthropomorphised to the point Beth and Z are living together alone in her childhood home, like an abusive married couple. This is, in itself, an allegory of how it can feel co-existing in your own mind with serious psychological issues. Depression (or any another form of mental illness) shackles us like an abusive husband while the sufferer’s left in the role of battered wife.
Beth alienates and isolates herself, not unlike Josh experienced unwillingly earlier. She cuts herself off because she’s seen the destruction Z has caused, or rather she’s seen the unintended consequences of that lurking mental illness emerging from her past / mind. She doesn’t want Josh to be further affected, or potentially harmed, because of Z’s jealousy. This perfectly represents how someone can buy into the idea that mental illness is dangerous and cut themselves off from others for fear their psychological issues will destroy everything around them. In one scene after Beth has essentially moved in with Z, she’s asked by Dr. Seager: “Is this what you want, to be with him?” She doesn’t want it, but she believes it’s what’s necessary to protect the important people left in her life.
I already enjoyed the previous film Christensen directed, as well as co-wrote with Minihan, called Still/Born. That film and Z are each impressive because they’re solid horror, coupled with the fact they can both be read allegorically. They each take things almost still taboo in our society and use horror to depict the anxiety those issues create in the people who face them. Still/Born— if you couldn’t guess already by the title— tackles motherhood issues patriarchal society doesn’t want women to openly talk about because it’s too inconvenient for men. Now, Z uses its horror allegory to open a frank, scary, pop culture discussion about mental illness. I’ve lived with PTSD for many years, as well as bipolar(i) and an anxiety-depression cocktail, so horror movies that deal with mental health whether in straight forward fashion or allegorically are important to me.
Z‘s end is a grim one, indeed. If we lean into the allegory, it has nothing good to say about where serious mental illness can lead some people. Beth rids herself of Z by any means necessary, yet the suggestion remains that, whether Z lives on in her or not, Z lives on one way or another in her son Josh. I think this is a realistic depiction of what sometimes happens to the mentally ill. There are enough rosy fictional outlooks on depression and other forms of mental illness when you’re looking for straight-up dramas. Horror doesn’t need to have a morbid ending, but this one never shies away from the abject horrors of mental illness, and though destroying oneself is never the answer, sometimes, like Beth, we’re left with few options otherwise. The one silver lining, in spite of the ending’s sadness, is that Beth shows how powerful a parent’s love can be and the lengths some parents will go in an effort to protect their offspring, even from themselves.