Las Vegas-based filmmaker Brandon Christensen’s first feature, 2017’s “Still/Born,” was about a mother dealing with a malevolent entity out to get her newborn child. At first glance, it seems like Christensen has just moved on to the next creepy-kid age bracket with his new feature, “Z,” but “Z” effectively shifts focus from its familiar initial set-up to a deeper examination of generational guilt. The theme from “Still/Born” that “Z” most strongly picks up on is the challenge and strain of motherhood, and Christensen dedicates the movie to his wife Alissa, the mother of his children.
Keegan Connor Tracy is excellent as Elizabeth Parsons, the mother whose life is thrown into chaos when her eight-year-old son Josh (Jett Klyne) starts playing with an imaginary friend he calls Z. As the movie begins, Josh is a happy, energetic kid who carpools to school with his best friend and loves his parents. But once Z shows up, Josh becomes sullen, withdrawn and prone to angry outbursts. He attributes all of his bad behavior to Z, and soon escalates from name-calling to shocking acts of violence. Elizabeth becomes convinced that Z is an actual sinister presence in their home, and not just a product of Josh’s overactive imagination.
That’s all pretty standard horror-movie stuff, although Christensen (who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Colin Minihan) executes it effectively, and Klyne gives Josh the right amount of unsettling emotional distance. The movie really belongs to Tracy, a veteran TV actor who rarely gets to play leading roles. Even in the more predictable early part of the movie, Tracy makes Elizabeth’s parental distress feel urgent and real, especially as she’s largely dismissed and patronized by her husband Kevin (Sean Rogerson), in another echo of “Still/Born.”
Tracy really gets to shine in the film’s final third, when the focus of the danger shifts from Josh to Elizabeth, and Christensen deviates from the creepy-kid horror formula. Another veteran character actor, Stephen McHattie, makes the most of his handful of scenes as a therapist who treats Josh but also knows more about Elizabeth’s past than he lets on. Some of the twists and turns of the plot don’t make a ton of sense, but they all have a strong thematic resonance.
Shooting, as he did with “Still/Born,” in his native Canada, Christensen captures the bland menace of seemingly placid suburbia, where the wholesome nuclear family hides dark secrets. Christensen mostly makes impressive use of his limited resources, although there are a few unconvincing special-effects sequences, and Z himself is scarier as an unseen presence than in the few brief glimpses of him onscreen. As he did on “Still/Born,” Christensen proves that he can generate suspense and dread in a handful of locations (mostly deceptively cozy family houses).
Between “Still/Born” and “Z” (which made the rounds of horror film festivals, including Sin City Horror Fest, last year), Christensen has established himself as a rising indie-horror star, and specific moments in “Z” recall the early work of new horror auteurs like Ari Aster (“Hereditary”) and Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”). “Z” is a step up from “Still/Born,” technically and artistically, and there’s every reason to think that Christensen will continue to develop as a filmmaker with future work. He’s kept Vegas as his home base even as his career has taken off; maybe next time he’ll get to direct a feature film here, too.