Brandon Christensen’s “Z,” premiering May 7th on Shudder, is a vicious little movie that recalls “Poltergeist” and “The Babadook” with its story of a possessive force that destroys a family. It’s a little rough around the edges in terms of an obviously thin effects budget and even simple things like its overcooked score but there’s a lot to like here in terms of storytelling within the risky screenplay by Christensen and Colin Minahan (“What Keeps You Alive”). It’s one of those films that may be overly reliant on jump scares when you tally them all up, but I’d by lying if I didn’t admit that a few of them legitimately made me jump. There’s one in particular that made me gasp in a way I don’t think I will with any other horror movie this year—it’s the moment you know this movie, unlike its title character, isn’t playing around.
Josh Parsons (Jett Klyne) is a quiet eight-year-old without a lot of friends. And so his parents—Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson)—are actually happy when their son starts opening up and playing with an imaginary friend named ‘Z’. The sense that something is wrong with Josh’s relationship with Z hits mom first, as it always does in these movies (you could program a film festival with horror movies in which mom knew something was wrong before dumb old dad). Josh, who formerly slept with the door open now wants it closed because “Z likes it dark.” And mom thinks she sees something at Play Zone but no one believes her. In fact, there’s an interesting undercurrent in the first third of “Z” in which it feels like Elizabeth is being gaslighted by her husband and son. Josh seems to be acting even creepier to get attention and dad is willfully dismissive of the problems with his son, even after he gets suspended from school.
Mom is the first to suspect that there’s more to the story of Z than meets the eye. First, it’s reflected in the increasingly unstable behavior of her son, which really hits home when literally no one in his class will come over for a playdate. They’re all scared of Josh. And then there are the creepy night scenes of sounds and shadows when Elizabeth senses a presence in the house. Some of these are a bit overdone for the theatricality of the genre. I’ve always said there are some horror movies in which it feels like the characters can hear the creepy score and know they’re in a genre movie as they move slowly to increase tension. In the real world, you’d probably just flip on the light with a little less gravitas, but that’s no fun.
Christensen and Minahan are smart to give “Z” two major turns—sorry to anyone who’s not a fan of the three-act structure. The first act’s gaslighting creepiness becomes something more like “Poltergeist,” especially after Josh draws a terrifying vision of Z on his wall and, well, violence happens (I won’t spoil the aforementioned jump scare, but mine was accompanied by an audible exhalation and I believe a curse word). Without spoiling anything, a doctor who also treated a young Elizabeth, played by the always-reliable Stephen McHattie, reveals a family history with this particular problem that the Parsons are having. But the film has another turn in its final act, leading to a pitch-black ending.
It may be all a bit too manipulative and inconsistent for some people, and I wouldn’t argue too much, but this feels like a perfect film for Shudder, the growing service for horror fans. People who shell out a monthly subscription fee to the streaming company—which was built on the success of the creepy kids and haunted house movies that spawned “Z”—are unlikely to be disappointed by their new horror friend.
Premieres on Shudder tomorrow, 5/7.