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Imaginary (15)

Director: Jeff Wadlow
Screenplay: Greg Erb, Jason Oremland, Jeff Wadlow

Starring: DeWanda Wise, Taegen Burns, Pyper Braun

Review: David Stephens

Nasty “imaginary friends” aren’t exactly a new concept to horror movies. There were (and are) everywhere if you dig deep enough for them. What about Captain Howdy in “The Exorcist”, or Amityville’s pig-like Jodie? And let’s not forget “Paranormal Activity” with the (non-)appearance of Tobi in some entries. Basically, it plays upon the idea of the common notion of a child’s hyperactive brain cells creating a companion for them when they need one, but having this innocent practice hijacked by a demon/ghost/bastard-in-the-walls/whatever. So a modern take on this is probably overdue, especially with the last successes of child-orientated PG-13 horror in the shape of “M3gan” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s”. And lo and behold, it’s Blumhouse again that has a hand in this latest studio fright flick entitled “Imaginary”, along with Lionsgate. Director Jeff Wadlow is at the helm, after previously filming “Truth or Dare” and “Fantasy Island” for producer Jason Blum. Ahead of John Krasinski’s “IF”, which is a comedy based around a similar concept (come back to the Dark Side, John! Prove “A Quiet Place” wasn’t a one-off!), this has just opened in UK and US screens. In the States, the plucky little bear is facing up to some stiff opposition at least with “Dune 2” and “Kung Fu Panda 4” (sounds like the best football match ever) dominating cinemas. So, let’s see how it bears up…


It starts with an atmospheric aperitif with Jessica (DeWanda Wise) having her imagination literally run amok on her. She is a popular children’s illustrator/writer and second wife to hipster musician Max (Tom Payne from “The Walking Dead”). This makes her stepmother to young Alice (an excellent Pyper Braun in a breakout role), and the teenage couldn’t-be-more-salty Taylor (Teagen Burns). Jessica has the opportunity to move into her childhood house, as her father is now non-communicative and convalescing in a care home, after a marked deterioration in health. Seeing this as a chance to bond with the girls and make a fresh start (especially as Max soon sods off on tour), she relishes the experience. However, little Alice quickly finds a teddy bear in the basement and names it Chauncey. Speaking to the waistcoated furball as a living person, the girl soon starts to behave a little oddly and withdraws from the rest of the family. Things only get worse though, when the toy seems to exert a malevolent influence over the child, and neighbour Gloria (Betty Buckley) reveals some forgotten truths about Jessica’s own experiences in the house as an infant.


Despite some initial good reactions to the first trailer, there was an unmistakable whiff of B.O. (Bad-film Odour) about “Imaginary” before it hit the theatres. Despite the usual interviews and junkets, there were no advance previews, and it had a strict last-minute embargo on reviews. Never a good sign, especially with a Blumhouse flick. Apart from the slight smell, there was absolutely no buzz about it either. If your horror-spidey-sense tingled with negative vibes, well, then you probably weren’t alone. Sure enough, hours after opening, the mainstream critics tore into the movie with the usual vitriol reserved for studio horror films. “Unimaginative” (obvs), “Shoddy”, and “Unscary” were three well-used words in most reviews. Be that as it may, with the usual Blumhouse budget plan and release schedule, it’s already pretty much made its budget back within three days in the States alone and is guaranteed to be profitable. So, is it that bad then? Well, we’re going to put our parenting heads on for this one. It’s not that we’re upset at bad behaviour, it’s just that we’re disappointed…


Disappointed, because there was real potential here and it could have been so much better. First off, Pyper Braun is a great little actor and really sells her role. Her delivery of potentially clunky lines like “He’s not imaginary … and he’s not your friend!” is so good that it’s no wonder it was used boldly in the trailer and on poster straplines. Braun’s scene with the child psychiatrist, where she provides the voice for Chauncey as well, is so damned compelling that it feels like it came from a different film altogether. Seriously, what is it about genre films that brings out the best in talented young actors? Wise is also pretty good as the sympathetic lead, although the character is so perfect and earnest that it undermines the performance a little, not to mention the odd dodgy line of dialogue.


There are also some moments that work surprisingly well, apart from Braun’s natural performance and creepy voice-overs. Watch for a clever shock resulting from an unexpected detail about the girl’s maternal mother, a near-flawless moment where there’s a neat revelation about the manifestation of Chauncey (although it is a genre trope in some respects), and the button-eyed “zombies” rival “Coraline” for creep factor effectiveness. And like the “Annabelle” films, there’s a lot of (initial) subtlety with Chauncey’s movements and motives. There’s even a touch of the “cosmic weird” or Lovecraftian mythos about an entity, which suggests that adults are literally driven mad when exposed to the combined mental weight of children’s imagination. Outside of those pluses though, it all starts to go a little bear-shaped … err … pear-shaped.


Because, despite some promise at the beginning, as a whole “Imaginary” feels overlong and convoluted. What should have been a fun and sharp popcorn shocker gets bogged down in exposition and unnecessary details about the drab background stories of the main characters, not to mention cod-philosophy, rubbish psychoanalysis, and hurried mythology that feels like it was put together after a quick search of Google. It needed to be quicker-paced and less of a slave to PG-13 horror gimmicks. But instead, we get Nickelodeon levels of “fearful” moments, such as people looking under the bed and false jump-scares with OTT musical shrieks, along with dark figures creeping up behind someone. Much of the time, these “scares” are horribly fudged. You know you’ve got a problem when the reasoning for a BBFC “15” certificate is given onscreen as “Strong Threat”. That’s it! No reference to violence, blood, bad language, injury, etc. Apart from two brief splashes of blood and a few murky monsters, anything remotely scary takes place offscreen.


At least, Chauncey isn’t a CGI scampering thing. But unfortunately, his “real” form looks a bit like Ludo from “Labyrinth” or Sweetums from “Sesame Street”. It might work in short bursts, but it won’t cut it for any mature genre fans. This is probably why the trailers work better than the film in many respects. Speaking of “Labyrinth”, the final act just feels like a lazy mash-up of the stair sequence from that movie, mixed in with the concept of “The Further” from the “Insidious” franchise. Just nowhere as good, despite a half-hearted attempt at narrative darkness, which is quickly squashed with an eye-roll moment. It always feels unfair to criticise a horror movie for its PG-13 sensibilities. After all, that never stopped (the original) “Poltergeist” from becoming a cult hit and bloody scary to boot. Wadlow claims he was influenced by that film here, but it just doesn’t have the same impact or (you’ve guessed it) imagination.


In summary, it’s not quite as bad as most of the cackling critics have it, but you will be genuinely pushed to remember any details or scares from the movie once you’ve left the cinema. It really is that disposable and indistinct. At a push, it’s an okay film for those wanting a horror-lite experience and no bad dreams that night. It’s inoffensive and professional. But that’s as far as it goes really. It might turn a profit, but start a franchise? No chance for Chauncey.   

It’s not that bad, but it’s certainly not good either. Overlong, convoluted, and bereft of originality, it could have been so much better. Disappointingly, there are moments that work well but aren’t exploited enough, and it sometimes feels like an inferior and lazier “Insidious”. Braun is excellent but Chauncey can get stuffed. Okay ride for the unfussy, but Seth Macfarlane’s “Ted” is scarier!
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