IMAGINARY Review: Tiresome Compendium of Horror Genre Cliches

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
IMAGINARY Review: Tiresome Compendium of Horror Genre Cliches

Filled with stock scares, stock plot turns, and stock set pieces, Imaginary, writer-director Jeff Wadlow’s (Fantasy Island, Kick-Ass 2, Never Back Down) latest enfeebled effort, stumbles from its first moments through its last shot before the end credits mercifully roll and bored, disinterested moviegoers head for the exits.

Hampered by surface-deep dialogue, a flailing cast that deserves better, and one too many rote set-pieces, Imaginary will, like the invisible “friend” at its center, gradually fade from the memories of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves watching it at a movie theater or at home in several weeks.

Wasting a perfectly serviceable idea for the horror genre, a demon-possessed stuffed teddy bear, and shamelessly borrowing, or occasionally stealing, every supernatural horror cliche, Imaginary opens inside a nightmarish dreamscape that promises far more than Wadlow, his screenwriting partners, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, and the production crew can reasonably deliver.

The dreamer who dreamed the opening nightmare, Jessica (DeWanda Wise), suffers, of course, from unresolved childhood trauma, the kind of double childhood trauma that left her motherless (cancer) and her father mentally broken. Jessica, aged 5, ends up in her grandmother’s care for the remainder of her adolescence and young adulthood.

While that childhood trauma plays out in the background for most of Imaginary’s run-time, Jessica has moved forward with her life, enjoying success as a popular children’s book author (she writes and illustrates), and marriage to Max (Tom Payne), a Brit-accented musician who couldn’t be more supportive, compassionate, or loving toward Jessica. There's only one minor hitch: Jessica winning over Max’s two daughters from his previous marriage, Taylor (Taegen Burns), a typically sullen, resentful teen, and Alice (Pyper Braun), a preternaturally sensitive preteen who bears scars, literal and figurative, from her mentally disturbed biological mother.

For reasons left unsaid, but which can be surmised by looking at current home prices near metropolitan areas, Jessica, Max, and Max’s daughters decide to make Jessica’s childhood home their own. Conveniently, Jessica’s father has been moved to an assisted living facility where, in rare moments of lucidity, he warns a frightened Jessica about a mysterious figure who goes by the initials C and B. Not even an intrusive neighbor, Gloria (Betty Buckley), or her difficult relationship with Taylor, can spoil Jessica’s homecoming.

What can — and does — spoil Jessica’s homecoming isn’t of our world. It comes from another world, dubbed the "Never Ever” by Alice or, more likely, given to Alice by the imaginary friend who never seems to leave Alice’s side or who can’t help but prod Alice into increasingly dangerous behavior to prove her loyalty to it.

The imaginary friend also either possesses an old, abandoned teddy bear named “Chauncey” or manifests itself as said teddy bear to make itself more palatable to its preteen victims. Either way, Chauncey has the same non-terrifying effect whenever he makes an appearance in all the usual places (e.g., Alice’s hands, her bed, or the dinner table).

It shouldn’t take long, but Wadlow takes far too much time ramping up the suspense involved with Alice’s increasingly disturbed behavior or Chauncey’s malevolent response to perceived enemies. The obligatory overstuffed, dusty basement also makes an appearance, less as an underlit site for fear and danger from an insatiable entity and more — insert yawn here — as a disused portal to the “Never Ever,” the same portal that will play a key role in a third act that finally amps up the (PG-13) horror, Poltergeist- or Hellraiser 2-style.

With predictable plot turn after predictable plot turn, that only leaves the jump scares (minimal, also predictable), the set pieces (idea-free except for the third act), and the three central performances to sell the terror and horror to the audience. While the performances rarely dip below the competence necessary for an entry in the genre, it's everything else around them disappoints, leaving only one possible response, ‘Is that it? Is that all there is?” Sadly enough, the answers are yes to both questions.

Imaginary opens today (Friday, March 8), only in movie theaters, via Lionsgate.

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Betty BuckleyDeWanda WiseImaginaryJeffrey WadlowPyper BraunTaegen BurnsTom Payne

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