Out of all the horror subgenres, the “creepy kid” variety usually isn’t my favorite. It relies far too much on tired tropes and jump scares. Also, like a lot of subgenres, it’s one that’s incredibly oversaturated. After the commercial success of The Omen (1976), filmmakers have been trying to recreate the same novelty, but usually fail because these imitations don’t offer anything original...
...There are exceptions, such as The Babadook (2014) or Hereditary (2018) but these are rare treasures. Director Brandon Christensen has teamed up with his writing partner, Colin Minihan, to tell a story that does, in fact, contain a creepy, afflicted kid. It takes a lot to impress me in this subgenre, but Christensen’s new film, Z, dares to tackle it and show us there might be a few things we haven’t seen.
In fairly routine fashion, the film introduces us to an upper-class family who have seemingly normal day-to-day routines and morning rituals. Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) is a caring stay at home mother tending to her son, Josh (Jett Klyne) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson) is a successful businessman who has provided extremely well for his family. The family dynamic is strong and while it’s not perfect, the film lets us know they have a lot to lose if anything tragic were to happen. Gradually, Josh starts exhibiting strange behavior with his imaginary friend, Z. It’s the familiar formula of a kid playing with someone who isn’t present, strange drawings, and a suspiciously calm demeanor. Things go from weird to bad after a shocking incident involving Josh and one of his peers. The family dynamic starts to crack a bit as Josh’s behavior becomes undeniably destructive and Elizabeth must seek help in strange and sometimes dangerous places to uncover a remedy for her son.
From a brief synopsis, Z doesn’t sound incredibly engaging and it’s not for the first 30 minutes of the film. After that point, a huge amount of weight is hefted onto the story and our concerned characters. I appreciated the formulaic opening act because it made what follows all the more palpable. Even when the film is on autopilot at the beginning, Keegan Connor Tracy is so committed to her role that it makes up for the lack of the supposed unoriginality. She pulls off the concerned mother thing well because her reactions to Josh’s chaotic behavior are genuine and I found myself deeply sympathizing with her. Sean Rogerson plays his part serviceably and I was pleased to see him working with Colin Minihan again. Grave Encounters (2011) was my first introduction to Rogerson and I’ve since really enjoyed his work. Everyone who has a key role in the film make the supernatural circumstances more believable, which I think is absolutely necessary when asking your audience to suspend disbelief. It’s one of the reason’s the film works as well as it does.
On a visual level, Z is firing on all cylinders. The color palette is appropriately muted, with greys and harsh, bright whites taking up most of the screen indoors and out. It falls in line with Elizabeth’s mostly joyless journey, and to me, made it seem like she was always awake to her problems, never getting proper rest from them. The film is shot with intent and there is a lack of movement with the camerawork that evokes a very eerie sensibility. There are a few slow pan dolly shots, but it’s never used in excess and the stillness adds a quiet tension to the film. One of my favorite aspects of paranormal films are the use of inventive and frightening imagery. The entity in Z is terrifying and the film knows how much and how often it should reveal it. You only catch quick glimpses of the creature, which of course, makes it more effective. I applaud the design team for their work because this could have easily been a corny looking phantom. Instead, what’s shown is more akin to something described in a Creepy Pasta story and that’s right up my alley.
Z manages to do some really interesting things with the genre, but it can’t escape every trope. In one specific scene, Elizabeth conveys to Kevin she has seen the entity following Josh. Kevin, against all cliché skeptical dads, takes her story at face value and admits he too has seen some very strange things. In a flutter of joy, I made a note of how glad I was that skeptic dad trope wasn’t used in the film. Unfortunately, that joy was short lived, because just as Elizabeth’s brow formed a relieved expression, Kevin told her he was kidding, and it was just his jacket he was looking at. It was really jarring because a film that previously had its hooks in me now deceived me as it fell back on lazy character writing. In terms of other tropes, there are a few jump scares, but it was never in excess. There are also some connective plot threads that were a bit too convenient to believe, but none of these flaws ruined the experience for me.
Z has already earned itself a fair share of accolades, including winning “scariest film” at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and it took home two awards from the Blood in the Snow Film Festival. After my very enjoyable experience with the film, I am happy to rally behind its praise. Z is an effective horror film that manages to capture a special kind of synergy in creeping you out while also pulling you into great drama. It doesn’t dodge every trope tied to the genre, but It offers enough of a departure that hoists it above many of its creepy kid film relatives.
Play with Z when the film arrives on Shudder May 7th.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth