'Imaginary' Isn't Real Scary

Directed by Jeff Wadlow

Starring DeWanda Wise, Tom Payne, Taegen Burns, Pyper Braun, Matthew Sato, Veronica Falcón, Betty Buckley

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate 

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Mar 11, 2024


The imagination can be a hell of a scary place, where the worst fears — about the world, about others and about the self — can manifest and compound. But what happens when the worst parts of one's imagination not only fester, but materialize and give chase? The latest Blumhouse horror miss-terpiece attempts to explore these themes with very mixed results.

Directed and co-written by Wadlow, Imaginary tells the story of Jessica (DeWanda Wise), a children's book author and illustrator who moves back into her childhood home with her husband, Max (Tom Payne), and two stepdaughters, Taylor (Taegen Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun). Jessica's dreams and memories are haunted by her own creations, but they subside once the family moves into her old house.

When Alice finds a teddy bear named Chauncey in the crawlspace of the house, she begins talking to him, developing a strong bond with her new imaginary friend. Chauncey starts to have an overwhelming and dangerous influence over Alice, and when she starts behaving erratically, it becomes apparent that there is a malevolent force hidden in the guise of this cute teddy. With the help of Taylor, Alice's therapist Dr. Soto (Veronica Falcón), and neighbour and former babysitter Gloria (Betty Buckley), Jessica must unravel the secrets of her traumatic childhood and solve the mystery of Chauncey before it's too late for Alice.

Although the film wastes no time in the "I'M GONNA SCARE YOU!" department, starting off with a nightmarish chase through Jessica and Max's apartment, it quickly dips in energy and takes too long to amp up and start telling an interesting story. It spends too much time establishing the familial dynamics, many of which are redundant and should have been excised.

Max is especially superfluous, disappearing at the start of the second act to go on tour even though we haven't been given any indication that he's a musician until his unceremonious exit. Fortunately, when the film does get interesting midway through, it makes some surprisingly effective storytelling choices, and its central conceit — the fate of abandoned imaginary friends and their response to this rejection — is sinister and well developed.

As the latest film from production powerhouse Blumhouse, Imaginary is essentially a gore-less affair, relying on mood, tone and atmosphere rather than body count. While it uses the requisite jump scares (mostly to unremarkable effect), it also makes ample use of the terrors that lurk in the darkened corners of our homes and our minds, the scary things that move in the shadows and go bump in the night (or day).

Although moments of blood-letting are very few and far between, when they do happen, they feel uninspired, even obsequious, appealing to the lowest common horror fan denominator. It's obvious when the film is trying to frighten, yet when it wants to disturb and unsettle, it actually succeeds, thanks in no small part to Pyper Braun's superb performance as Alice.

Braun is a performer with enviable skills, putting to shame not only other child actors, but also most of her adult costars. She's frightening and sympathetic, cold and terrified, amused and distraught, and she explores these contradictions with the talent and power of someone far beyond her years or experience. Putting kids in peril has become de rigeur for Blumhouse productions; Braun's tour de force turn as Alice is a case where the cliché works.

What the film does have going for it, apart from Braun's performance, are the practical effects, which are surprisingly well done. The imaginary world is chaotic and disorienting (even if it does ape a bit too much from the works of M. C. Escher), while many of the creature effects are practical and have a disturbing, and welcome, weight to them. Chauncey's indifferent eyes, coupled with some well-timed repositions, are particularly effective, as are the startling appearances of a humanoid shape throughout the house.

Early in the film, when Chauncey is being cuddled by Alice, he turns to face her, which makes for a disconcerting visual. It's a small, almost insignificant turn, but it's this kind of unexpected shift by an inanimate object that helps give him both life and power — and that's actually scary. These moments and manifestations force us to ask who or what Chauncey is exactly, which the writer's gleefully withhold until the third act.

Of course, Blumhouse films love exposition, and Imaginary is bursting with explanations and unexpected recollections. There's the requisite Creepy Lore section, where a character who has been researching and/or documenting the villainous entity/creature — in this case Gloria, who has been chastised and called crazy for her beliefs — finally gets to explain to the other characters (i.e. the audience) the true nature of the evil they've encountered.

Unfortunately, the film gets confused by, and even lost in, some of its own lore. There are a number of plot holes, and it introduces elements that are completely unnecessary for our understanding of Chauncey, simply because the writers feel it's necessary for the creep factor.

The film also tries to explore some incredibly complex social and personal issues — mental health, trauma, abuse, neglect — yet it often does so flippantly, introducing these elements with little to no resolution. Its treatment of individuals suffering from mental health issues is particularly unfortunate, even irresponsible. The girls' institutionalized mother is vilified in both of the scenes she's featured in, while a side-plot with Jessica's similarly institutionalized father is horribly underdeveloped. Adding insult to injury, a cruel and entirely unnecessary twist late in the film dashes any hope for an on-screen reconciliation or vindication for her father.

Overall, Imaginary offers a somewhat unique take on the Blumhouse formula. It relies on the production house's (sub-)standard approach to psychological horror, but mixes it with a creature feature, eschewing violence for something more fantastical. Although the film has a surprisingly effective emotional core, it gets diluted by exposition and opportunistic reveals, as well as its creators' insistence on twists and false endings, all of which feel manipulative and underwhelming.

Tonally, Imaginary tries to present itself as looser and more accessible compared to some of its dour and nihilistic Blumhouse siblings, yet it still ends up taking itself and its premise way too seriously. There are some poorly structured "gotcha!" moments that are insincere and mean-spirited (the ending is beyond cynical), and these make for some of the film's laziest moments.

There are some creative scenes and set-ups, including a frantic, climactic search for a missing character through the imaginary realm, but Imaginary ultimately ends up feeling dull and under-stuffed. It's flimsy, cheap and easily forgotten — much like an unloved stuffy decaying in the darkness of some dusty box that will never be opened again.

(Cineplex Pictures)

Latest Coverage