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imaginary-horror.jpg

'Imaginary' Almost Sucks

By Lindsay Traves | Film | March 11, 2024 |

By Lindsay Traves | Film | March 11, 2024 |


imaginary-horror.jpg


Writer and director Jeff Wadlow has a storied history crafting creepy tales for Blumhouse, the modern mogul of horror features. For his latest, he’s taken on the “creepy kids and surrogate parents” sub-genre to tell the tale of a spooky friend named Chauncy who terrorizes Jessica (DeWanda Wise) and her new husband’s children, Alice (Pyper Braun) and Taylor (Taegen Burns). His version starts off as a less exciting version of its flood of cohorts, but it later commits so hard to its own bit that it becomes the zany Halloween treat that aged fans of Mary-Kate and Ashley spooky movies might beg for.

Jessica isn’t a reluctant surrogate mother; she’s a zealous one. Taking on her husband’s children, who’ve been left behind by their mentally ill mother, is a challenge for the children’s author, who is excited by the idea of having a happy family, something she lost out on in her own childhood. But it’s not easy being a stepmom (especially with a brand tarnished by fairy tales), and Jessica butts heads with the older daughter, Taylor, and has a hard time managing the specific needs of the younger, Allison, a playful and warm child scarred by the experience of her mother.

After struggling with nightmares in their shared apartment, Jessica and the gang move into her childhood home, which has become available since her ill father had to move into a place with full-time care. Her husband insists he knows it’s her happy place and that she will be happy there, even though she left there at age five after some trauma she can’t really remember. This is the first of the story’s unfortunate disconnects from logic that signal a lot of it was made without a reliance on crafting a quality script. But it doesn’t matter much. After some runtime stretching beats by way of a trouble-maker neighbor, an eccentric old lady, and something about children’s illustrations and deadlines, the story takes a turn when the imaginary friend Allison has latched onto pushes her to some dangerous acts. A visit from Alice’s therapist turns sour, and new secrets are revealed, which sets the story off from another in a long line of ‘same old’ and into a zany tale of occultism for kids.

At the risk of doing my usual listing of cohorts, this feature has more in common with the recent (terrible) Five Nights at Freddy’s than it does with Mama and The Babadook. It’s easier to compare it to the criminally underseen Z, though that one is much more grim, despite following the same premise of a shared experience with an invisible pal. Imaginary could have so easily been relegated to being the next boring take on creepy kid bologna, and its first half full of nonsense filler and ridiculous conversations made me think that’s where it would live. But the moment after its best scare (you’ll know it when you see it, it’s not so different from what you might see in The Conjuring 2), the story flips from being a daylight The Boogeyman into a wacky fright that exploits, dare I say it, liminal spaces.

There’s a temptation to scrutinize ratings for horror movies, us recently experiencing what happened to Black Christmas, and the complaints splashed all over the bloodless M3GAN, but maybe not all scary movies are made for those of us comforted by sharp weapons piercing skin and releasing gallons of crimson fluid. I can’t guess why Imaginary is PG-13, but it thrills me that younger audiences might see this as a bridge from Phantom of the Megaplex to Malignant.

Imaginary is the kind of stupid movie that’s played with such earnestness that it begs to be accepted into camp or cult standing, though it probably won’t be. It’s not going to break the internet the way other new zaniness did, but for younger audiences looking to wade into terrorizing features, Chauncy is like a predator holding a nut trying to pull a squirrel into a horrific space.

Imaginary hits theaters March 8, 2024