It’s never a question of nature versus nurture in horror movies about killer kids. That may be because of the fear being expressed: Despite your best efforts as a parent, your child will turn out to be a serial killer, or even just a regular old shitty person. Psychological underpinnings aside, the little demon always comes out of the womb with evil already in its blood—and, typically, an unnerving, penetrating stare. The eerie moppet in Z, which launches on the streaming service Shudder just in time for Mother’s Day, has one of those X-ray gazes. But the connection between Joshua (Jett Klyne), his mom Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy), and the malevolent spirit that overtakes both of their lives is more complicated and interesting than what you typically find in films of this type.
At first, Z appears to be a by-the-numbers example of the subgenre. It’s set in an anonymous, upper-middle-class suburb, lensed in the generic gunmetal gray that will one day appear as dated as the fuzzy outlines of ’80s direct-to-video horror movies. The story begins when 8-year-old Joshua, already a troubled child with behavior issues at school, starts insisting that his parents make space at the dinner table for his new imaginary friend, Z. Joshua’s dad, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), thinks it’s a harmless phase, as willfully clueless horror dads are prone to do. But stay-at-home mom Elizabeth quickly intuits that something much darker is going on. With his presence marked by shots of children’s toys overlaid with ominous music, Z is more of a creeper than a reaper—until a shocking, sudden moment midway through the film.
Z’s greatest virtue is in the delivery of its frights, which hit like a slap in the face despite falling into the general category of “jump scares.” That first jolt is followed by one of the most effective, scream-inducing reveals this reviewer has seen in quite a while, enhanced by some truly ghastly visual effects from director Brandon Christensen. Christensen, who also edited and co-wrote the film, is becoming something of a specialist in child horror, having launched his feature directorial career with the infant-themed Still/Born in 2017. (Perhaps his next film will be about a ghoulish teenager.) Here, he plays the same basic theme with a little more virtuosity alongside producer and co-writer Colin Minihan, whose own career was built on a well-executed version of a standard horror concept in 2011’s Grave Encounters.
But what makes Z engaging beyond those brief, heart-stopping moments is also what ends up confusing it narratively. Once the film’s true, wicked intentions are finally made clear, Christensen and Minihan plug their ears and shout a wordless tune as they build a backstory for Elizabeth that’s thematically rich but logically inconsistent. Tracy’s committed performance helps carry Z through its claustrophobic final act, as does the sustained atmosphere of dread that permeates the last half-hour of the film. If you’re looking for an airtight screenplay or innovative visual style, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking to turn out all the lights, pull a blanket up under your chin, and jump several inches off your couch, there’s a new bad-seed thriller to adopt today.