Imaginary (2024)

Genres - Horror, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller  |   Release Date - Mar 8, 2024 (USA)  |   Run Time - 103 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Kieran Hair

Many horror fans balk when they see a PG-13 rating, but no true horror should need to rely on excessive gore to terrorize the audience. A good premise, well-crafted suspense and an unsettling atmosphere are all that many classic horror films have required. With Imaginary, writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2) invites audiences to use their imagination in pretending he achieves any of those elements effectively.

The premise itself isn't terrible. Jessica (DeWanda Wise) returns to her childhood home to take care of some personal business while visiting her ailing father, Ben (Samuel Salary). She brings along her stepdaughters, Alice (Pyper Braun) and Taylor (Taegen Burns), the latter of whom treats her stepmom with such cartoonishly stereotypical angst that viewers can only assume she's spending most of her offscreen time on Reddit. During their stay, Alice forms a disturbing relationship with Jessica's old teddy bear, Chauncey. It quickly begins to appear the bear may not be inanimate, and that his plans for Alice may in fact be targeting Jessica herself.

There's nothing inherently unique about this premise, but it could prove fantastic with the right execution. That's where Imaginary flounders. The film drags through the entire first act, as well as a decent chunk of the second. Most audiences already expect that this bear is alive, so there's very little tension in the other characters' initial disregard for Alice's friendship with Chauncey. On top of that, Wadlow places half a mile of road signs before every twist like he's a city engineer. They could have done something remarkable if they took a few notes from Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby), allowing Jessica to grow immediately suspicious while casting doubts that it may all be in her head. It would have done far more to keep up the suspense until the film was ready to really kick into gear.

It's especially a missed opportunity because most of the cast likely could have pulled it off. DeWise and Braun give such solid performances, it's almost curious they wound up in a Blumhouse performance at all. Braun's performance, especially in one scene with a child psychiatrist (Veronica Falcón), should all but ensure the girl a promising future if she puts it on her reel. Salary also has his moments, although few of them let him truly shine. The film also bizarrely casts stage legend Betty Buckley as the elderly neighbor, only to give her one of the most formulaic roles in the film.

Atmosphere is another area in which Blumhouse delivers on roughly half an idea. The use of practical effects is admirable, if somewhat clunky toward the end. The entire third act becomes the art department's playground, in which they're free to imbue set pieces with any twisted take on a child's imagination they could conceive. But while the scenery looks good enough, it also feels devoid of wonder. It gives the impression that no one on the crew has ever seen, spoken to, or even been a child long enough to understand how limitless their imaginations truly are. Only the lighting really captures the childlike wonder Wadlow envisioned for the film, and even these moments are fleeting. Other than that, the most standout visual is simply one shot stolen almost directly from Coraline.

Ultimately, Imaginary pulls through enough. The performances and certain design elements lift it just above average, and it's never really bad to look at. The film also contains a fair amount of laugh-out-loud dialogue, some of which even seems intentional. But it also suffers from sluggish jump scares and lackluster suspense. Combine these with a paint-by-numbers plot that feels as if Wadlow asked ChatGPT for a slightly altered synopsis of Poltergeist, and Imaginary is reduced to a mostly decent film that could have had far more potential. Wadlow simply made the bold choice to leave that potential to his viewers' imaginations.