The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Shudder] - Z | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Shudder] - Z

z shudder review
A mother discovers her son's imaginary friend is a malevolent entity.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Brandon Christensen

Starring: Keegan Connor Tracy, Sean Rogerson, Jett Klyne, Sara Canning, Stephen McHattie

z shudder poster

Director Brandon Christensen's feature debut, 2017's Still/Born, was a decidedly old-fashioned horror movie with more in common with 1970s TV movies than the crash bang wallop of the Conjuring and Insidious franchises. With an absence of special effects, it relied heavily - as so many of the best horror movies do - on a convincing central performance from its lead actress.

Christensen's follow-up, the search engine unfriendly Z, mines similar territory, and though CG rears its head in a few brief shock moments, it's also largely reliant on its female lead to pull us into its story and accept its reality for 83 minutes.

z shudder review

Still/Born gave us a twist on the horror sub-genre revolving around post-natal depression, and Z similarly subverts the creepy kid movie. Here, it's not the kid, eight-year-old Josh (Jett Klyne) who is the source of the scares, but rather his imaginary friend, the titular 'Z'. His mother, Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy), and father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), are initially dismissive of their son's new, seemingly non-existent buddy, even humouring Josh by laying out food and a glass of milk for Z at dinner time.

But then Elizabeth is called in for a meeting with Josh's teacher, who fills her in regarding her son's increasingly violent behaviour at school. Elizabeth is shocked to learn that Kevin has been signing off on reports of Josh's bad behaviour without mentioning his misdeeds to his wife. That's grounds for divorce right there, but Elizabeth instead uses her hubby's guilt to persuade him to take Josh to a child psychologist, Dr Seager (Canadian cinema stalwart Stephen McHattie). Seager assures them that all they need do is be more attentive to their son, but when he hears mention of the name 'Z', his ears prick up, some memory triggered within him.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Hagazussa ]

Needless to say, Elizabeth and Kevin's efforts to be more of a friend to Josh have little effect, nor do the pills Elizabeth is hiding in her son's milk and from her disapproving husband. As Josh's behaviour grows deadlier, leading to one of the most startling jump scares I've seen in quite some time, Elizabeth comes to realise that Z may be more than simply a figment of her son's over-active mind.

z shudder review

As with Still/Born, Christensen directs his sophomore effort with a largely invisible hand. It's the sort of economical yet effective filmmaking that refuses to draw attention to itself but is all the more effective for its subtlety. Visually, Still/Born somewhat resembled a movie of the week you might find on the Lifetime network, but its absence of style allowed us to devote our attention wholly to the psychology of its troubled protagonist. With Z, Christensen expands his cinematic palette to some degree, but it's still the sort of directing that goes unnoticed by those who aren't programmed to anally analyse camera placement and blocking.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Reborn ]

Justifying his use of a widescreen format, Christensen makes use of the breadth of his frame, often presenting an action and its reaction in the same static shot. He also understands how effective a simple horizontal panning move can be in unsettling a horror audience, making us alert to some new threat such a camera move seems designed to introduce. A single camera setup involving a threat (an oncoming train), a potential victim (a child playing on the train tracks) and a potential saviour (the child's panicked aunt) provides a brief masterclass in just how much a clever filmmaker can convey in a single shot with little more than a simple pan.

z shudder review

The deceptive economy of Christensen's direction is equalled by the performance of Tracy. It's a difficult part, as it relies on a secret being kept from the audience that Elizabeth may or may not be clued into prior to a certain point. There are times when we question some of Elizabeth's actions, but there's something about Tracy's manner that casts our doubts aside, something she's holding back from us.

Z keeps us gripped with just the right mix of slowburn menace, occasional and effective jump scares, and an earnest performance by Tracy. All this helps to paper over how conventional its narrative really is, but there's something comforting about watching conventions pulled off with such unshowy grace. Those who demand their horror movies pitched to 11 may grow impatient with Z, but those of us who prefer a sinister whisper in the dark to an axe in the face will recognise Christensen as one of the most talented directors to emerge from the horror genre in recent years.

Z is on Shudder May 7th.

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