Imaginary is a mess of a horror movie, and not in the fun way

It’s hard to know where to start in describing how bad Imaginary is. The new horror movie from Blumhouse and director Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2) starts with the simple but promising premise of a haunted stuffed animal and a malicious imaginary friend, but its bland characters, muddy storytelling, and lack of scares leave behind a movie more lifeless than a teddy bear with no stuffing.

Imaginary’s mess of a story begins with a woman named Jessica (She’s Gotta Have It and Jurassic World Dominion’s DeWanda Wise) and her new husband, Max (Tom Payne), waking up after one of Jessica’s recurring nightmares. She’s being chased through a long hallway by a giant spider, who also happens to be the main villain in the children’s books she writes. The couple quickly decide that it’s time for them and Max’s two kids from a previous marriage, teenage Taylor (Taegen Burns) and much younger Alice (Pyper Braun), to move into Jessica’s childhood home, in hopes that the familiar setting will cure her of her nightmares. Max’s kids aren’t too happy about the move, though it isn’t quite clear how far they’re going or what their specific objection is.

It isn’t really clear whether we’re supposed to believe Jessica wants to get along with her new stepdaughters, or if her rudeness to them is an accidental problem of the script and the performance. Either way, after a few days in the house, Jessica ignores Alice by sneaking out of the house during a game of hide-and-seek in order to take a work call, leaving Alice to explore the basement and find Chauncey the creepy teddy bear.

DeWanda Wise in Imaginary stands in a shadowy room wearing a yellow dress with stains on it Photo: Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate

Chauncey quickly becomes Alice’s new imaginary friend, who she talks to constantly and takes with her everywhere. This part of the plot strongly evokes M3GAN, without ever getting near that movie’s knowing sense of fun. All this setup happens by about 10 minutes into the movie, and it’s also where the coherent details of the plot end.

[Ed. note: The rest of this story contains significant spoilers for Imaginary. The good news is, reading about them is much more fun than sitting through all 104 minutes of the movie.]

Chauncey’s arrival should also usher creepiness into Imaginary, but the movie gets so diverted by trying to piece together a story out of its myriad meaningless plot threads that it doesn’t have much time to dedicate to actual horror. In one scene, for instance, the children’s biological mother shows up at Jessica’s house without warning, attacks Jessica, reveals that she seems to psychically know there’s something evil in the house, gets arrested, then disappears for the entire rest of the movie. This scene is never brought up again.

Shortly after that, Max just leaves his children with their new, clearly not up-to-the-task stepmom so he can go on a seemingly indefinite tour with his band. There’s also a creepy neighbor who just happens to have a fully illustrated academic textbook on imaginary friends that seems tailor-made for a lazy exposition scene. The movie even throws in two separate child-abuse plotlines that it eventually just shrugs off when they aren’t useful anymore.

It’s tempting to try to read into this labyrinth of digressions to try to find some kind of meaning or intention, but Imaginary never makes that feel worthwhile. There isn’t a single character in the movie who feels worth rooting for, and the performances are entirely devoid of charisma. The script, written by Wadlow, Jason Oremland, and Greg Erb, is full of wooden dialogue that’s stiff and often feels almost completely nonsensical. Characters sometimes introduce new information like it’s a fact the audience has known forever.

At other times, they treat seemingly obvious plot points like major, unguessable reveals — like when we find out that Chauncey once belonged to Jessica. None of these plot threads ever amount to much, and most of them are just left dangling by the end of the movie. If the filmmakers don’t care about them, why should we?

A young girl played by Pyper Braun sits at the top of the stairs next to a teddy bear while an ominous shadowy figure lurk behind her in Imaginary Photo: Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate

But as with any horror movie, most of this disaster could be overlooked if only the story was scary. Instead, that’s where its failures become most apparent. Imaginary doesn’t bring a single original idea to the horror genre. It’s entirely paint-by-numbers filmmaking that never even manages to create tension, let alone fear. Characters look under beds while the cloying score brings in a swell of strings to beg us to feel something. Chauncey moves on his own a time or two, and even transforms into a monstrous bear, but the scenes are lit so badly that the effect just looks cheap and underbaked rather than remotely terrifying. Watching sequences this rote is soul-crushing for a horror fan, and they make the moments where the movie slows down for its next attempt at a scare feel like they drag on for ages.

The one briefly interesting sequence comes in the final third of the movie, when Alice has been tricked into visiting the world of the imaginary friends, and Jessica and Taylor have to rescue her. This world floats in darkness, and its only solid ground is a checkerboard floor in an endless hallway of doors. Sections of the world form staircases to nowhere, dead ends that drop into an abyss, and doors that seem to float upside down.

None of these visuals are wholly original — they take aim at the middle ground between Twin PeaksRed Room and a Scooby-Doo chase scene, without any of the fun that combination implies. But even without originality, it’s far and away the best visual of the movie. Sadly, for most of their time in this world, the characters just charge blindly into doors and end up in the same boring rooms we’ve seen in the rest of the movie, each one shot essentially the same as it was in the real world, just a little bit darker.

Imaginary didn’t have a high bar to clear. In a year that’s been lacking interesting horror movies so far, with the other Blumhouse entry Night Swim as the only real bright spot, all this movie ever really needed to be was some silly fun with a few good scares. Instead, it gets lost in a maze of awful storytelling and frustrating characters, all without offering anything more than the stock-standard horror tropes that have been done better in a million other movies.

Imaginary is in theaters on March 8.