Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 24, 2020)
A staple of the horror genre, the “creepy kid” theme gets a new exploration via 2020’s Z. Introverted eight-year-old Josh Parsons (Jett Klyne) lives with his parents Beth (Keegan Connor Tracy) and Kevin (Sean Rogerson).
After the other children shun Josh, he presents an “imaginary friend” named “Z”. At first, this choice seems fairly harmless.
However, Josh begins to spiral, as he displays severely problematic behavior. As this intensifies, the situation grows and it becomes apparent Z may not be completely imaginary.
Although I placed Z in the “creepy kid” subgenre, that may seem somewhat off-base, as most of the film actually revolves around Beth. As we learn before long, she comes with her own history as it pertains to Z.
Which seems like a decent twist, but not one that really goes as far as the movie would like. Z walks a fine line between psychological and literal horror, and it doesn’t balance the two especially well.
Some of that stems from the rapid way in which it tosses us into Josh’s apparent mental degeneration. We don’t get to know the characters all that well before he goes kooky, and that seems like a mistake because we get little sense of pre-Z Josh.
Sure, we ascertain that the other kids don’t much like him, but this doesn’t go far, and we don’t see him decline in a tangible way. One minute he’s an introverted but well-behaved kid and the next he’s suspended from school due to violent behaviors.
And when I say “one minute and the next”, I mean that nearly literally. Most movies would show a gradual decline in Josh’s mental state, but Z gets him booted from school barely after the credits finish.
This seems too fast and it robs the movie of some natural tension. I get that the filmmakers want to move to the meat of the story – the elements that pertain more specifically to Beth – but we still could use more of a dramatic build than we get.
Much of the film teases us with the notion of whether or not Z actually exists, and you know what? I still don’t really know.
Z feels like it wants to have its cake and eat it too. We get many signs that Z remains imaginary, but we get plenty of others that he resides in reality.
I think one side dominates the other, as too much of the movie makes no sense if the tale doesn’t veer that way, but the “facts” stay uncertain, and that seems like a cheat. Not that I need a movie to spell everything out for me, but Z comes across like it messes with the viewer in an unfair manner that plays by ever-changing rules.
On the positive side, Z manages a reasonably creepy tone, and it doesn’t rely too much on the usual jump scares. Heck, it even delivers one genuinely shocking jolt.
For the most part, the actors fare well. Klyne occasionally overdoes his role, but he doesn’t go too far over the edge, and Tracy helps ground matters in a part that could become overwrought in the wrong hands.
All of this adds up to a decent horror movie but not one that excels. It relies a little too much on coincidence and erratic “rules” to turn into a truly compelling effort.