Imaginary (2024, dir. Jeff Wadlow)

by | Mar 9, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Distributor: Lionsgate

UK Release Date: 8 March 2024

WHO’S IN IMAGINARY?

DeWanda Wise, Pyper Braun, Tom Payne, Betty Buckley, Taegan Burns, Matthew Sato, Verónica Falcón, Dane DiLiegro

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jeff Wadlow (director, writer, producer), Greg Erb and Jason Oremland (writers), Jason Blum and Paul Uddo (producers), Bear McCreary (composer), James McMillan (cinematographer), Sean Albertson (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A seemingly innocent teddy bear begins showing a darker side…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON IMAGINARY?

Director Jeff Wadlow’s track record with producer Jason Blum and the latter’s production company Blumhouse has thus far been… well, it’s been bad. The filmmaker started off weak with the ridiculous supernatural horror Truth or Dare, and then somehow descended further with a dumb horror reimagining of Fantasy Island – though luckily, as often is the case with most low-budgeted Blumhouse movies, they both managed to make their money back and then some at the box office, so it’s unlikely anyone is crying that hard over their existence.

For his third collaboration with Jason Blum, Wadlow directs and also both co-writes and produces Imaginary, which of his three Blumhouse movies to date is probably the strongest one. Don’t mistake that for praise, though, for it still suffers from a lot of near-fatal flaws that Wadlow’s other movies had: this one just happens to have slightly fewer of them.

Imaginary, which Wadlow also co-wrote with Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, sees a children’s illustrator named Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moving back into her childhood home with her new husband Max (Tom Payne) and his two daughters Taylor (Taegan Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun) from a previous marriage. Moody teen Taylor is less willing to give her new stepmother a chance than the younger and more impressionable Alice is, but after the latter discovers a seemingly innocent-looking teddy bear in the basement, she immediately becomes inseparable to the stuffed animal named Chauncey, enough to where it becomes her new imaginary friend.

Of course, this being a horror film, it doesn’t take long for Jessica to notice that Chauncey is having a negative effect on Alice, with the teddy bear’s games and scavenger hunts – which include gathering jars of bugs and later a bit of self-harming – growing more and more dangerous. It’s now up to Jessica, with the reluctant help of Taylor and the eccentric old neighbour Gloria (Betty Buckley), to figure out who Chauncey is and what he’s up to, before he completely takes hold of young Alice and her active imagination.

One thing that Wadlow manages to do with Imaginary that he wasn’t able to with either Truth or Dare or Fantasy Island is to actually try and go all-out on his original concept. Sure, the idea of an evil children’s toy is far from new within the realm of horror, and there’s only so much he can do on a typically low Blumhouse budget, but the director does have a clear vision for his film that is, to some extent, ambitious in its ideas and overall style. There are sequences in this film, particularly later on, that almost feel like they’re straight out of one of the more imaginative sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street, with some surreal production design and practical effects that look impressive in a film that could have easily gone for a wholly CGI route instead.

It’s the first time that I can recall where Wadlow seemed like he was genuinely finding his groove as a filmmaker, which he was struggling to achieve even before he partnered with Blumhouse, when he was making films like Cry Wolf, Never Back Down and Kick-Ass 2. If nothing else, Imaginary is a decent step forward for him in really asserting himself as a horror filmmaker with plenty of imagination on the brain.

However, that doesn’t mean Imaginary is automatically free of ridicule or criticism, because it still has a lot going against it, namely the fact that it just isn’t scary. The film definitely makes valiant attempts to startle the audience – which puts it above Blumhouse’s recent Five Nights at Freddy’s movie, because this one is at least trying to be scary – but many of the scares it has to offer are extremely tame, and also lack the atmosphere and even the menace to achieve the results that it wants to get. You never feel like any of the main characters are in genuine danger, because Chauncey the bear isn’t an intimidating enough figure to warrant many of the loud musical stingers that accompany his off-camera movements, but also because Wadlow and his co-writers don’t do a great job of establishing why exactly this bear seems to have it out for any of them, reserving it all for exposition dumps provided by good sport Betty Buckley. All the while, the film just becomes sillier and sillier with each new reveal (though I will admit, one of the twists actually did catch me off guard), and at no point does it ever become at all terrifying.

As ambitious as Wadlow is with some of his ideas here, he doesn’t extend any of that ambition to his main characters, who are largely archetypical and lack any real depth. From the strange old lady who somehow has all the answers (again, Betty Buckley is such a good sport in this) to the totally oblivious husband who completely disappears from the film about halfway through, right down to both the obnoxiously solemn teen and the younger child with lines and deliveries straight out of a cheesy 80s sitcom, Imaginary ironically lacks imagination when it comes to writing characters that the viewer can easily get behind without groaning.

I remember Wadlow’s Fantasy Island having a similar problem, though there were more characters in that who were considerably more unlikeable, whereas here you at least have DeWanda Wise putting in a solid performance where at times you do feel her frustrations as she is tormented by both Chauncey and her stepdaughters giving her all sorts of trouble. However, her character, as with everyone else in this film, is ultimately not as interesting as it perhaps could have been.

That statement also applies to the film as a whole: while Imaginary may be the least terrible of Jeff Wadlow’s films with Blumhouse thus far, it doesn’t do enough to make this concept completely stick around in the mind.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Imaginary is a flat horror that simply isn’t scary, nor does it have enough interesting characters to capture your imagination, but some ambitious ideas and executions do make it director Jeff Wadlow’s strongest (though not by much) collaboration with Blumhouse to date.

Two out of five stars

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