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‘IMAGINARY’ Film Review: A Creatively Creepy Spin on Spooky Toy/Imaginary Friend Terror Tropes

For generations, imaginary friends have danced playfully on the fringes of our cultural imagination, evoking nostalgic memories of childhood innocence. Tea parties, pretend adventures and playtime with stuffed companions were the harmless hallmarks of youth. But nostalgia curdled into dread as filmmakers warped the imaginary into the macabre.

Movies such as Child’s Play and The Boy shook audiences by exposing the dark secrets lurking behind childlike facades. Chucky, the adorable Good Guy doll, revealed his true identity as a possessed killer whilst an uncannily lifelike doll named Brahms was a front for a disturbing presence lurking within the walls.

Continuing this trend, while elevating this particular sub-genre with a devious slant this reviewer was not expecting, Blumhouse follows up their biggest box office hit to date, Five Nights at Freddy’s, with writer/director Jeff Wadlow‘s (Cry Wolf, Truth or Dare) examination of the sinister side of imaginary friends lurking beneath plush exteriors, Imaginary.

The story follows a family in search of a fresh start. Sisters Alice (Pyper Braun) and Taylor (Taegen Burns) join their father Max (Tom Payne) and stepmother Jessica (DeWanda Wise) on a trip to Jessica’s childhood home, expecting fun and adventure in the new surroundings. But upon arriving, the idyllic getaway takes a dark turn when they discover a tattered teddy bear.

Alice immediately warms to her new furry friend, who she calls Chauncey, and the two become inseparable playmates. But as Alice’s tea parties and mischievous pranks with Chauncey become increasingly unsettling, and as Alice’s behaviour grows more disconcerting, Jessica suspects there’s more to it than meets the eye and takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of Chauncey’s mysterious influence.

Wadlow made a shrewd decision when it came to Chauncey’s nature. Instead of having the stuffed bear spout one-liners like a furry Chucky, Chauncey remains ambiguous throughout. Barely moving a stitch, his very presence exudes a sense of foreboding that builds as the film progresses. This allows the eventual twists to land so much more powerfully.

Much of the bear’s creep factor can be attributed to Braun, who convincingly portrays an innocent child interacting with her cuddly companion. But her cherubic charm melts away as she weaves a truly unsettling performance when her exchanges with her not-so-cuddly companion take a sinister turn. Through subtle shifts in demeanour, Braun adeptly conveys her character’s corruption, intensifying the tension as the malevolent teddy truths are uncovered.

The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, with Wise and Burns excelling as the bickering stepmother and stepdaughter forced to work together in an attempt to save Alice. Matthew Sato provides some welcome comic relief as the eccentrically romantic neighbour who goes above and beyond the call of duty to win Taylor over. And my only niggle with the characters was Payne’s fleeting role as the father figure who felt somewhat perfunctory, but who was evidently devised to make way for the fantastic female leads to shine.

The pacing of the story is also dead-on, instantly investing you in the lives of the characters before unleashing a barrage of cleverly crafted scares. Cinematographer James McMillan toys with our nerves with long, drawn-out panning shots, allowing the tension to build to almost unbearable levels. This might sound like just another set of jump scares, but they are expertly executed and recall the fantastic, anxiety-inducing camerawork of cinematographer Stefan Duscio on Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man.

To divulge any more details about what happens next would spoil your enjoyment of the film, so suffice it to say that things take a turn for the worse in ways that go against pretty much everything you’ve ever seen in evil toy films. Wadlo has openly said that the original Poltergeist served as a strong source of inspiration, and there are echoes of that as we approach the end, but just enough so that the final twists and turns defy expectations and will likely leave viewers satisfied.

Special kudos to the writers of the film for working a number of scenes into the film that raise some vital awareness about mental health, its warning signs and when to seek help. They strike a delicate balance, seamlessly weaving this important topic in without overshadowing the central narrative, and I was deeply grateful that the writers took due care and effort to shed light on such a critical issue.

Imaginary is the perfect gateway horror film that will appeal to horror fans of all ages, much like the aforementioned Five Nights at Freddy’s. This inventive shocker is likely to spark insightful conversations about mental health, making it an intriguing choice for family movie night. Those seeking hardcore horror won’t find what they are after here. But if you’re in need of an creatively creepy, thought-provoking and highly entertaining shocker, Imaginary will bear scratch that itch for you.

VERDICT:

Imaginary releases in theaters on March 8th

You may also like to watch our interviews with the film’s cast and crew here.

Where to watch Imaginary
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