‘Imaginary’ Review: Blumhouse Follows ‘M3gan’ & ‘Freddy’s’ With Latest Chilling Trip Into Toys-Turned-To-Childhood Terror And PG-13 Scares

Following the outsized PG-13 success of both M3gan with its frightening robotic doll and then Five Nights at Freddy’s with its animatronic rock band, Blumhouse has now settled on a familiar childhood companion, a seemingly innocent stuffed bear named Chauncey, to deliver carefully calculated chills in Imaginary. It is a formula that sheds the R-rated explicitness from the horror genre, something Blumhouse knows well, and makes it more palatable for a younger audience not just in ratcheting down the bloodletting, but also in bringing it to a level kids might relate to. And what better than putting familiar playthings at the center of the action, in every case guaranteed to stir up our demons and make us jump out of our seats.

There is no reason to believe that Imaginary won’t also succeed, and this one from director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow (Truth Or Dare) delves deeper into psychological terror, a young person’s genuine frights, in telling its story of a blended family encountering their own greatest fears and leading to an all-out occult assault on their worst imagined thoughts.

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Here the film’s title comes into play, as the evil encountered is not so plainly in sight. The key character, Chauncey, is seemingly innocent looking but subtly able to change expressions or mysteriously just show up unnanounced while still appearing inanimate. He is abandoned in a corner of a new home where young Alice (Pyper Braun) finds him and immediately turns him into her friend, however “imaginary” this relationship seems at first. She and older teen sister Taylor (Taegen Burns) are the stepdaughters of Jessica (DeWanda Wise), who has moved from a New Orleans apartment with her new husband and father of the two girls, Max (Tom Payne). Still haunted by nightmares from her own past and with an institutionalized father Ben (Sam Salary), Max believes a change of pace is needed and arranges for the family to actually move into Jessica’s childhood home. Uh, not a good idea.

As Max, a rock musician, must head out on tour, Jessica is left as boss of the girls in a house where she begins to slowly get creeped out by the increasingly alarming behavior of Alice and Chauncey (especially with that crayoned checklist of “scavenger hunt items”), but also now must confront her own demons and the fact that the bear left behind was once hers and maybe is now the ring leader of a darker world living still, but not exclusively, in her dreams. Context to all this is given by the next-door neighbor Gloria (Betty Buckley), who once babysat Jessica, noticed her attachment to the bear, and suspected there was something otherworldly going on there. She delved into all that and became an expert on the occult and spiritual realms borne out of a child’s “imagination.” Now with Alice in the same boat in the same house, it is Gloria’s opportunity to prove her “crackpot” theories and detailed work is right after all.

There are a few twists, a couple of turns, and even some nice old fashioned excuses to scream if you are so inclined. Wadlow is smart enough to know that in the oversaturated horror genre the best path forward might be not what we actually see (vis a vis gut-wrenching hard-R visuals) but rather what we actually think we see. It’s effective in its own way, especially since Imaginary seems set up initially to be just an extension of this sub-horror genre given vivid life by the likes of Annabelle and Chucky among others outside of the Blumhouse house.

It helps to have a game cast and there is one on board here, starting with Wise, also an executive producer, who makes Jessica’s own past come alive believably as the new experience in her old house comes back to haunt her. Braun is terrific, hardly cloying at all, in a role that seems clichéd in this kind of film these days. Burns makes a strong impression, as does Salany, the latter seen in flashbacks and current day as the institutionalized father who holds dark secrets. Buckley, in essentially the Lin Shaye role, makes the older, somewhat creepy neighbor an absolute hoot. This Tony-winning star adds a lot of gravitas and knocks it out of the park, particularly when the action turns to the place beyond the walls known as the “Never Ever.” Every one of these films builds to an overwrought manic climax and this one is no different in that regard with the emerging Entity and bloated Bear Beast on hand, but Wadlow keeps it all in check enough as to not also destroy the heart of his tale.

An eerie and lilting musical theme is exceptionally well used here, almost feeling like the childhood soundtrack provided by Elmer Bernstein in his classic To Kill a Mockingbird score. It is enormously effective, and the music for the film is credited to Sparks and Shadows, with an acknowledgement at the end credits to composer Bear McCreary for additional work.

Producers are Jason Blum and Wadlow.

Title: Imaginary
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release Date: March 8, 2024
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Screenwriters: Jeff Wadlow & Greg Erb & Jason Oremland
Cast: DeWanda Wise, Pyper Braun, Taegen Burns, Tom Payne, Betty Buckley, Alix Angelis, Sam Salary, Matthew Sato, Veronica Falcon
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr and 44 min

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