‘Imaginary’ Review: Jeff Wadlow’s Horror Pastiche Dreams Up Some Solid Scares

There may be nothing revelatory in Blumhouse’s latest horror flick, but it’s serviceable for the genre

"Imaginary"
"Imaginary" (CREDIT: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate)

Jeff Wadlow’s “Imaginary” isn’t trying to hide its inspirations. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of cinema’s influential movies will be able to spot the film’s multitude of references. For some, this may seem ironically un-imaginative, but we need to remember that imagination isn’t simply a brand-new idea built entirely out of whole cloth.

Stories build upon other stories, and so if you can set aside the expectation that “Imaginary” aims for anything radically different then you can settle into a surprisingly solid, date-night horror film with a thoughtful subtext beneath its creepy stuffed animal avatar. “Imaginary” may not reinvent horror, but it knows how to conjure up a good time.

Jessica (DeWanda Wise) is a successful children’s book author who moves back to her childhood home to be closer to her ailing father. Along for the trip are her husband Max (Tom Payne) and her two stepchildren Alice (Pyper Braun) and Taylor (Taegen Burns). Alice is emotionally and physically scarred by her birth mother’s mental illness, but in the house’s spooky basement she discovers an imaginary friend named “Chauncey.”

At first, this seems like normal child behavior until weird things start happening around the house and Alice’s behavior starts to change. Jessica comes to realize that Chauncey is connected with her own traumatic past, and that he’s not some benign imaginary friend.

If you wanted to get together with some friends you could probably have a good time spotting all the other films “Imaginary” has no issue with referencing. There are the obvious all-stars, like “Poltergeist” and “The Shining,” as well as more recent hits like “The Conjuring” and “Insidious.” There are also non-horror films in the mix like “Labyrinth” and “Monsters, Inc.”

You could even draw a line from “Imaginary” to “Night Swim,” another Blumhouse movie which came out two months ago and is also about a family moving into a haunted house (and look, I’m not saying houses should be haunted, but in this market, you may just have to roll with it). If “Imaginary” were just a parade of references it would be underwhelming. Thankfully, Wadlow knows how to construct a good scare and, more importantly, there’s a thoughtful theme beneath the surface.

Horror movies typically excel when they’re about more than just a monster. Chauncy, a teddy bear, isn’t inherently scary, and even the film’s larger CGI monsters are firmly in PG-13 territory. But “Imaginary” remains effective because Wadlow and his co-writers, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, seize upon the fear of a parent’s mental illness. This is not a movie brimming with imaginary creatures; this is a movie about Jessica and Alice, who share a trauma and have the emotional and physical scars to prove it.

The film doesn’t have an easy answer for dealing with the pain that comes from a person you thought would protect you falling prey to their own demons. And it’s that particular kind of helplessness that gives “Imaginary” enough emotional heft to keep it humming through all of its familiar scares.

It doesn’t hurt that the two strongest performances come from DeWise and Braun. There’s an easy temptation to play the material as arch or silly if your antagonist is a spooky teddy bear. But DeWise and Braun play it completely straight, and the emotional bond between their characters is what drives the film forward. DeWise capably puts the movie on her back, showing she has no problem carrying a feature while Braun avoids all the traps that typically befall performances from child actors. When Braun has to lapse into Chauncey’s “voice” it feels like she’s making the character her own rather than simply riffing off the Danny/Tony bit from “The Shining.”

That grounding gives the film the heft it needs to hit all the old horror standards (all phones have flashlights, so whose fault is it if the basement is dark and spooky), and even be knowingly silly. Betty Buckley plays Gloria, a neighbor who exists primarily to dole out exposition to our main characters. Chauncey isn’t that scary, but it’s nice that the production invested in giving him slightly different facial expressions to let us know the stuffed animal is up to no good.

Your mileage may vary on how much credit you want to give “Imaginary” for its imagination. Some may see it as a been-there, done-that ride that recalls better pictures, but such a view dismisses the kind of bread-and-butter delights a film like “Imaginary” provides, and a B-movie appreciation we readily allow for genres other than horror. Look beyond the plethora of allusions, and you’ll see a film that’s happily engaging with the genre while still maintaining a solid core of real dread so that it’s not all empty calories. I can imagine far worse for a PG-13 horror film.

“Imaginary” is in theaters March 8.

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