Z review – an uneven thriller for Mother’s Day

May 8, 2020
Tyler -Howat 0
Film Reviews, Shudder


The Shudder exclusive film Z brings up myriad topics: motherhood, trauma, abuse, and what we pass on to our kids – all wrapped up in a creepy horror-thriller about a kid’s imaginary friend.



The Shudder exclusive film Z brings up myriad topics: motherhood, trauma, abuse, and what we pass on to our kids – all wrapped up in a creepy horror-thriller about a kid’s imaginary friend.

This review of Z (Shudder) is spoiler-free.

Because I live the trailer-free life, I really thought that Brandon Christensen’s (Shudder) was going to be a zombie movie. Turns out that the past decade has given me just one association with the final letter of the alphabet, and as much as I love films about the undead, I was happy that this didn’t go that route. It did, however, go the route of many other films, only differentiating itself in a few ways while painting by the numbers in many others. This film ruminates on the dread of motherhood and that which we pass on to our kids. I just wish it did this better.

Josh (Jett Klyne) has an imaginary friend named Z, and his parents Elizabeth and Kevin (Keegan Connor Tracy and Sean Rogerson) have mixed reactions to this news. Often, their reactions are utterly inexplicable. “I think Josh has an imaginary friend.” This doesn’t bode well for a movie of this kind. He only goes by the moniker “Z” who likes Josh’s room dark. This seriously does not bode well. And yet, they indulge Josh’s ostensible fantasies, setting an extra place at the dinner table for Z, cutting the crust off his sandwiches, making sure he only drinks the 2% milk, and unblinkingly painting over a horrific charcoal mural of the gnarled creature that is Z. Their child psychiatrist says there’s nothing to worry about while the school suspends Josh for his antisocial behavior – swearing and starting fights. All the while, Z begins tormenting the family, harboring a deep secret from the past.

Many shades of Paranormal Activity (particularly the third installment) rear their heads here, as well as movies like Insidious and Sinister. While I appreciate that this isn’t a ghost movie – it’s a monster movie-ish – there are too many shades of those other films that just keep this in run-of-the-mill territory, with some positive exceptions.

Writer-director Brandon Christensen (of Still/Born notoriety) shows a deft hand with tone. This is a well-shot film, with just the proper dose of jump scares that actually pay off. Furthermore, he juxtaposes childhood and fear quite well, starting the film with a charming opening montage of Josh playing with his toys, depicting Josh’s interior life next to his ostracization from the kids at school. Moreover, Christensen’s use of children’s toys to create a creepy vibe feels fresh and organic.

Z boasts one of the most (literal) jaw-dropping moments since Hereditary. I won’t spoil it here, but I was truly surprised a couple of times.

Then there’s the wholly cliched “we hate grandma” trope. Beth’s mother is dying from an illness, and she and her sister hate their mother, with no explanation. It’s just pure, spiteful venom. I get having a rough (unexplained) past with your parents, but I lost just about every shred of sympathy or connection with the mom when, after her mother has died from a long battle with cancer, she tells us that her mom “looks the same, but deader.” Are you serious? We’re literally quipping over your mother’s dead body while lighting up a smoke? Boo.

There are some good themes at play here – they’re just muddy and unfocused. Z deals with the existential anxiety of parents trying to make sure that they’re doing right by their kid – and possibly finding out that they’re screwing up without knowing it. This film is also about abuse and the oppression that surrounds many relationships, as well as the baggage we bring into our families. It’s about being a good mother in difficult situations, transcending the way in which you were raised. Unfortunately, all this (which seems to truly be the point of the film) feels shoehorned in during the final act.

Lastly, I have a plea for horror filmmakers: go practical with your effects. If we’ve learned nothing from the likes of the Conjuring or Insidious films (let alone the decades of horror prior to the turn of the millennium), it’s that practical effects are better. Z features really bad fire effects and distracting CG creature work.

That said, I do appreciate the themes of motherhood and trauma at play in Z; they’re just muddy themes encased in the trappings of better films.

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