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Home > ‘Imaginary’ (2024): A Review

‘Imaginary’ (2024): A Review

DeWanda Wise, Taegen Burns, and Pyper Braun star in "Imaginary."

'Imaginary' Is a Real Failure

Scary movies should have an effect: they should be skin-crawling, heart-pounding, spine-chilling. After watching the shark chomp on beachgoers in Jaws (1975), more than a few viewers put off a jaunt to the coast. Imaginary’s audience should at least become uneasy enough with the glassy stare of their plushies that they throw them in a trash can or at least flip them over. Most won’t because Imaginary is a make-believe horror movie. It’s made up of superficial characters in a sketchy plot that values the gratuitous twists and turns of an amusement park ride over dramatic structure and credibility. Horror requires belief in what’s horrifying.  

Alice and Chauncey

When Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moves back into her childhood house with her husband, Max (Tom Payne), and his two daughters from a previous relationship, young Alice (Pyper Braun) and teenaged Taylor (Taegen Burns), Alice finds Chauncey the Bear, Jessica’s former plushie and imaginary friend, in the basement. Chauncey quickly becomes Alice’s imaginary friend, and she gives him a creepy, croaky voice. Initially, Jessica and Max feel Alice and Chauncey’s relationship is cute, but as Alice becomes more and more obsessed with Chauncey, Jessica worries about her, and worry brews into fear when Chauncey drives Alice to hurt herself.

The story had potential. Imaginary friends are relatable. The voices children grant them can be creepy, so the idea that they can be catalysts for insanity or demonic possession, luring children like aptly named Alice down a psychiatric or supernatural rabbit hole, seems logical, but this movie fails to be convincing. The old saying is, “Seeing is believing.” It’s especially appropriate to movies as they’re primarily visual. Movie monsters, at their best, demonstrate the horrors they’re capable of; the worse, the better. The shark in Jaws isn’t just some uncanny leviathan. It’s a carnivorous sea monster that decimates a woman into a bucket of meat. Chauncey mentally traumatizes Alice and, to a much more severe degree, Ben (Samuel Salary), Jessica’s father. If this plot line had been consistent, Chauncey might have been a horrifyingly effective monster. It isn’t. In miscellaneous forms and deeds, the monster is muddled and conjures up confusion that degenerates into indifference in lieu of horror.    

Acting Is Not Necessarily Believing

There’s a fundamental book on acting called Acting Is Believing, but in Imaginary, that’s not necessarily true. The fault may be due to the script. Two minor characters, the orderly (Lawrence Weber Jr.) at Ben’s long-term care facility and Alice’s child psychologist, Dr. Soto (Veronica Falcón), are believable. Taylor is a stereotypically snarky teen girl who keeps her stepmother at a cold distance, but remarkably, Taegen Burns succeeds in transcending that stock character and playing her with credibility. It’s an acting feat that neither veteran actor Betty Buckley nor young TV actor Matthew Sato could pull off with their respective characters, Gloria and Liam. Gloria is a strange neighbor woman who is Jessica’s former babysitter. She’s important to the plot, especially in a major twist, but she never goes beyond the strange, old, neighbor lady stock character. Her function is to reveal some exposition about Jessica’s traumatic childhood and to serve as an expert on diabolical imaginary friends. Liam is a tepid, watered-down bad boy who flirts with Taylor and lamely attempts to seduce her into partying with her dad’s alcohol and some unidentified pills. 

Disappointingly, he’s not a heartbreaker – but he does break a liquor bottle, dropping his standing from hottie to goof. In many horror movies, lust – even the coltish, PG-13 version here – is a capital crime, but Liam escapes with just a scare that the viewers may not share.

Some characters are so two-dimensional that they seem perfunctory. Ben is mostly in a psychiatric stupor with the odd violent outburst. He’s the tragic hero of a cautionary tale in the plot’s backstory about taking on Chauncey and his ilk. Max is pleasantly hip, but he and Jessica are more or less as much a cardboard couple without chemistry as those on network TV in the middle to late 20th century. That’s a shame. The plot reveals that Max is a professional musician when he leaves to go on tour. With Jessica, an African American writer and illustrator of children’s books, two children – one a teen, and a shared history of having traumatic relationships with people with severe mental problems (the mother of Max’s daughters has a psychiatric history), they should be much more interesting than they actually are. Finally, there’s Alice. Pyper Braun does an effective job of portraying a girl bullied to distraction by her imaginary friend, but Alice is little more than what director Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” a device that merely triggers the plot.       

Anticlimactic After An Opening Tour De Force  

The opening sequence of Imaginary is actually scary as it weaves characters from the story together and sets them in frightening motion. It’s the movie’s tour de force that leaves the remainder of it anticlimactic. The horror movie, since its creation, has had a license to transcend or eschew the prosaic and transport into the fantastic. It’s been on the visual vanguard of cinema in lighting, camera angles, and special effects.  But most of Imaginary has the professionally standard look of a Lifetime Channel feature, and the effects are more absurd than special. Chauncey glides across the floor as if towed by an invisible string. Characters pass between worlds via nothing more imaginative than some kind of weirdly lit doorway. Writer-director Jeff Wadlow could have trash-picked some of his stock horror tropes from a cinematic dump. With the exception of Jessica’s home studio and Alice’s room, the production design doesn’t complement the characters. In this musician’s house, no musical instruments are conspicuously seen. Chauncey’s domain could be a Halloween house of horrors. Its artificial staging belies the supernatural parts of the plot. The creatures are beady or milky-eyed and toothy. They’re definitely grotesque, occasionally macabre, but not horrifying. On the rare occasions that they kill, the signs – a spray of blood, the sounds of tearing flesh and crunching bones – are well within the PG-13 rating. Even Jessica’s wardrobe can be distractingly problematic. A diabolical stuffed bear may possess her little stepdaughter, but what is Jessica wearing? 

Imaginary Is a Real Failure

Magic can’t work when it looks fake. A magician needs to suspend disbelief to succeed. Horror movies are a kind of dark magic. Imaginary doesn’t scare because the sum of its characters, settings, and plot doesn’t seem real enough for an audience to believe. That’s what makes It a real failure.

Blumhouse Productions, Lionsgate Films, and Tower of Babble Entertainment produced Imaginary. It was released in the United States on March 8, 2024. It is available in theaters and is available to buy or rent on YouTube, Fandango, Google Play, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.

Imaginary (2024) Official Lionsgate Movies Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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James Keith La Croix has worked in and around the entertainment industry for years. He majored in film studies at Wayne State University and in Live Action Video at the College for Creative Studies. He wrote reviews, interviews, and features on cinema for the Detroit’s Metro Times.

Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.