Shudder UK film review: Z (2019)
Maternity and madness8
Anton Bitel | On 07, May 2020
Director: Brandon Christensen
Cast: Keegan Connor Tracy, Jett Klyne, Sean Rogerson, Sara Canning, Stephen McHattie, Chandra West, Ali Webb, Deborah Ferguson
Watch Z online in the UK: Shudder UK
You wait for one imaginary-friend narrative with an intense mother/son relationship at its heart, and two come along at once. In Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, a young student must contend with the possibility that he has inherited his mother’s mental health problems, even as Daniel, the destructive imaginary friend from his childhood, returns with a vicious vengeance. Brandon Christensen’s Z, made in the same year – and coincidentally even featuring a playmate named Daniel – follows housewife Elizabeth Parsons (Keegan Connor Tracy), as she grows increasingly concerned that the new imaginary friend of her son Joshua (Jett Klyne) might be connected with her own forgotten childhood. Both films feature psychological scarring and insidious intrusion aplenty, and both leave the door open to diabolical ambiguity – but they are sufficiently different to coexist happily, and to complement, rather than cancel out, one another. Either stands up very well on its own, but they would make an excellent double feature.
Like Christensen’s feature debut Still/Born – and also co-written with Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, It Stains The Sands Red, What Keeps You Alive) – Z focuses on an increasingly frantic mother. As housewife Elizabeth – whom everyone calls Beth – must constantly pass from the modern timber palace that she shares with hard-working husband Kevin (Sean Rogerson) to the lower-rent childhood home where her long-widowed, demented, invalid mother Alice (Deborah Ferguson) is dying, she is stretched between conflicting domestic demands, and between a dying past and a potentially different future – and that is even before introverted eight-year-old Joshua, newly distracted by his invisible companion, starts acting out against others his age in a disturbing and dangerous manner.
Dr Seager (Stephen McHattie) is unconcerned by Joshua’s behaviour – until, that is, he hears Joshua refer to his friend as “Z”, triggering a memory and some research into the old medical records. Stuck at home all day with the now-suspended Joshua, Elizabeth too starts wondering if there might be something real underlying the supposedly imaginary Z, even if husband Kevin refuses to take her claims seriously while concealing things from her. When her mother dies and Elizabeth starts cleaning out the old house with her sister Jenna (Sara Canning), the boxes and basement full of memorabilia reveal pieces of Elizabeth’s own suppressed history, the residue of which is about to encroach disastrously on her own immediate family.
Therein lies the film’s formal equivocation. For either Z is the story of a patient, parasitic demon which attaches itself to an individual child, clinging to them into adulthood or moving on to their children – or it traces the legacy of abuse, trauma and mental illness, as filtered through the distorted, deluded perspective of its sufferer. So subtle is Christensen’s handling of these materials, as he trusts viewers to intuit Elizabeth’s troubled past from mere hints and suggestions, and as he plays a game of hide-and-seek in the dark with the elusive Z, that we are genuinely unsure if we are witnessing a Satanic home invasion or a family tragedy where patriarchy and instability pervade everything – and are readily transmissible.
Either way, Z is a harrowing watch. For it does not flinch from showing the objectification of, or harm done to, young children (very much a cinematic taboo, although here also possibly reconstituting an unspoken, primal scene from Elizabeth’s own childhood). Z eventually reduces its adult heroine to an infantilised, terrorised, submissive plaything (and implicitly a sexual plaything), in a scenario that evokes Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982) as much as Ate de Jong’s Drop Dead Fred (1991) or Tini Tüllmann’s Freddy/Eddy (2016). Disentangling all these narrative knots once the film is over forms an essential part of its horror. “Z” is one of the leftover letters from Beth’s own full name – and the remaining four spell out “A LIE” – yet the pertinacious, controlling, vindictive monster still bears a certain, awful truth – a truth engendered in those oddly erased years when her daddy was still alive, holding on to Elizabeth forever, or at least until the next generation is ripe and ready to accommodate the damage that has been passed invisibly on.
Even if all this is perceived as a mere allegory of domestic dysfunction and a reified return of the repressed, its interpretation remains utterly bleak. For whatever haunts the Parsons family is hereditary – and in this masterful tale of maternity and madness, Christensen once more proves to be the real deal.
Z is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.