Review: ‘Imaginary’

Blumhouse's Sinister Teddy Bear Horror Is As Scary As A Plush Toy

Blumhouse seems to be trying to cobble together an eventual superteam of anthropomorphic, robotic, or stuffed serial killer toys. The latest member to join M3GAN and the Five Nights at Freddy’s gang in this unofficial Murderer’s Row is Chauncey, the creepy stuffed bear at the heart of Imaginary. But working against Chauncey is that the movie he’s stuck in is unimaginative, lacking in scares, and stuffed not with cotton but with bland horror cliches that even genre fans will be bored by. A movie about a terrifying killer bear friend should be a lot scarier than this.

The most imaginary thing about Imaginary are any frights you’ll have sitting through it. DeWanda Wise, such a presence in the most recent Jurassic World movie, stars as Jessica. The tropes begin right away as Jessica and her husband Max (Tom Payne) move into her childhood hom with his his two daughters from a prior marriage. Psychological trauma is all over the place here. Jessica clearly had something horrible happen to her as a child, memories she seems to be repressing but are coming out in the children’s stories she pens as an author. Max’s ex-wife also suffers from mental illness and has been a threat to his daughters, Taylor (Taegen Burns), and the youngest, Alice (Pyper Braun). It’s Alice who is struggling the most, but she finds some comfort when she discovers an old teddy bear, promisingly hidden away in a secret basement compartment. She names him Chauncey, and her new imaginary friend becomes the catalyst for some disturbing, increasingly dangerous behavior.

Director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow has become a Blumhouse favorite for making easy-to-digest horror movies with a minimum of blood and violence. It’s a crucial component to the Blumhouse formula of maxing out audience appeal for their small-budget line of horrors that they drop on us every couple of months with conveyor belt consistency. Wadlow impressed me with his breakout film, a personal favorite, Cry_Wolf, a slasher with very little on-screen bloodshed to speak of but had loads of personality. Following his dreadful Kick-Ass 2 misstep, which wasn’t totally his fault, he’s found modest success for Blumhouse on the Final Destination-esque Truth or Dare, and again with the bloated Fantasy Island remake.

Imaginary is less of a movie than it is a single idea stretched thin for 100-minutes. Wadlow fills the gaps with generically ominous music, hoping that’s enough to keep reaction shots of Chauncey’s murderous teddy bear face from becoming a punchline. It doesn’t work. You’ll also laugh yourself silly at everything this movie liberally “borrows” from better horror movies from the past. Cliches such as creepy kids’ drawings, rebellious teens, ineffective psychiatrists, menacing toys playing more menacing tunes, and a clueless husband who seems unaware of the threat to his family. They should’ve had Patrick Wilson play him, that stereotypical role has become so worn out over the years. While the cast mostly struggles with a terrible script, horror veteran Betty Buckley makes the most of her scenes as a nosey neighbor linked to Jessica’s past. Buckley plays the role with all of the histrionic excess that a film this ridiculous deserves.

It’s a shame that Imaginary is so devoid of frights because there are some solid aspects here, including relative intense build where Jessica’s natural instincts clash with her repressed memories. Wise is such a talented actress she can convey Jessica’s desire to be a good stepmother to the girls, but also her frustration at the mounting issues preventing that from happening. Wadlow mixes an array of dynamic colors with shadow to capture images both surreal and frightening, much like a child’s vivid imagination.

Imaginary takes from everything from Coraline to Child’s Play, but surprisingly also from Toy Story. While the toys in that Pixar classic were saddened when ignored by their child owners and used it to inspire adventure, Chauncey refuses to be left behind and will destroy everyone to make sure it doesn’t happen. In a way, it’s a twist on the well-worn idea that what evil spirits want most is life. It’s actually quite a cool idea that might’ve worked with more commitment to making Chauncey a fearsome paranormal threat, but Imaginary plays it far too safe to offer any memorable thrills.

Imaginary is open in theaters now.

Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-imaginaryBlumhouse seems to be trying to cobble together an eventual superteam of anthropomorphic, robotic, or stuffed serial killer toys. The latest member to join M3GAN and the Five Nights at Freddy's gang in this unofficial Murderer's Row is Chauncey, the creepy stuffed bear at...