Imaginary is an Underwhelming Scare-Fest Totally Devoid of Scares

Anyone could imagine a scarier horror movie than this.

Inverse Reviews

Is Imaginary any degree of scary? No. Is Imaginary brimming with whimsical yet demented visuals? Also, no. Is Imaginary at least a family-friendly gateway horror treat that will keep audiences of all ages entertained? For a third time, that's a big ol' nope. After the mediocre efforts of Truth or Dare and Fantasy Island, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow reteams with Blumhouse to defy the redemptive adage that “third time's the charm.” Imaginary, Wadlow’s new horror film, is blandly presented, muted in tone, and lacking any bite as a warped tale about sinister made-up companions. Despite its creepy “killer teddy bear” premise, it’s hardly as terrifying as a hard stare from Paddington.

Imaginary follows Jessica (played by DeWanda Wise), a children's author and illustrator plagued by nightmares borne from childhood trauma. She and her musician husband Max (Tom Payne), along with Max's daughters Taylor (Taegen Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun), move into Jessica's childhood home in hopes of a new start. Jessica recalls fond memories in the house before her father lost his sanity one night, but forgets about one resident who never left: a stuffed bear Alice finds and befriends who goes by the name Chauncey.

Chauncey is coming for you.


The potential of Imaginary is limitless, yet Wadlow's vision for Chauncey's wicked exploitation of childlike wonder is disappointingly flat. Jacob Chase's Come Play or Brandon Christensen's Z are two recent examples of how filmmakers can turn imaginary pals into primetime horror villains, from which Wadlow absorbs no lessons. Aside from a remix of Mario Bava's legendary jumpscare in 1977's Shock that transforms Chauncey from plush toy to snarling beast, Wadlow reuses the same lame "shadowy figure in the background" trick to diminishing returns. Horror thrives in unexpected deliveries, which Imaginary lacks despite how the screenplay's premise introduces an environment where Chauncey can bend reality at his whim.

Wadlow, alongside co-scribes Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, is onto something neat from a storytelling perspective: showing the vengeful side of imaginary friends once they're outgrown. Jessica's relation to Chauncey and her tether to her family's residence is a compelling plot device, yet it’s frustratingly underexplored. Imaginary gets too preoccupied with repainting "The Further" from James Wan's Insidious as an imagination realm where kiddos go missing, decorated like production designers raided the bargain shelf at a Michael's craft store. Lightbox carousels and wind-up playthings try to contrast juvenile innocence against demonic manipulation, but it's weirdly disingenuous theming restricted to spurts. So much of Imaginary is visually drab, with camera frames tainted by empty space and an underwhelming suburban appeal. All the film's best looks are a flirty tease, like the icy-blue filtered M. C. Escher-style entrance to Chauncey's domain that quickly leads into a repetitive hallway of doors.

DeWanda Wise does her best to carry the movie, but she can only do so much to save Imaginary.


Imaginary underwhelms with the best of 'em. Its horror is ineffective since Chauncey's take on live-action Coraline eyes never should have passed the test phase. Wise's performance shoulders a production otherwise devoid of personality, left buckling under the overwhelming weight of a supporting cast that compares like made-for-TV cutouts. Chauncey's scariest appearance is glimpsed early, as a scurrying spider-person creepshow, but it's instantly evident why Wadlow frequently hides this figure either blurred out of focus or in darkness. (Chauncey's supersized teddy evolution play by Prey’s Dane DiLiegro is marginally better, if a clunkily immobile suit.) There's so much detail missing from Jessica, Taylor, and Alice’s world — Max goes on tour at the worst possible time and immediately becomes an afterthought — that everything might as well be greyscale. Betty Buckley's sassy senior Gloria attempts to inject a little wacky neighbor energy to liven the mood, and earns the best line delivery of the entire show as the trope-saddled elder with all the information, yet even her efforts evaporate into thin air (better suited for another hammier movie altogether).

It's a shame because gateway horror movies are vital passageways. They're a necessary entry point for someday-horror lovers who may not be ready for the big leagues. Imaginary could have been that padded adolescent horror tale à la last year's Five Nights at Freddy's (a film I enjoyed more than others), but it's not. The problem isn't a PG-13 rating or bum script. Imaginary oversells, under-delivers, and is never anywhere as frightening as the deepest recesses of your own all-time-terrible nightmares.

Imaginary opens in theaters on March 8.

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