Imaginary review | A simple horror idea in a not simple film

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Jeff Wadlow’s Imaginary takes a simple idea, and a creepy-looking teddy bear, but decides to take a slightly odd turn. Here’s our review…

There’s an old footballing metaphor that I’m going to reach for nice and early here. Never too soon for a cliché.

In this case, it’s the familiar tale of the team that has chance after chance to put the ball in the goal, but insists on doing things the long way around. The goal is gaping, but they keep spraying passes around, instead of just walloping it in. Almost to the point where you’re screaming: just bloody shoot.

Imaginary, then. I wish it’d just bloody shoot.

A horror thriller from the Blumhouse stable, it’s the latest movie from writer-director Jeff Wadlow, a filmmaker who knows his way around these sorts of things.

Admirably resisting the jump scare approach to such films – save for one or two effective moments – Imaginary nonetheless has little intention of taking the easy path to that aforementioned goal. It’s got a solid, get-under-your-skin foundation of an imaginary friend, and a creepy teddy bear. But rather than strip things down, it adds layer upon layer to what turns out to be a bit of a convoluted hodge-podge. Coming back to that, but won’t reuse the term ‘hodge-podge.’

Heading it all up is DeWanda Wise, a watchable presence as Jessica, the lead of the movie. Jessica’s a children’s author, and also the stepmother to Taylor and Alice. They’re the biological kids of Tom Payne’s Max, who pops in at the start of the film, and heads off on his travels as the shit threatens to hit the fan. Bottom line is they all move to a new house, which has old memories. That, and there’s the spectre of an imaginary friend, and a cute, cuddly toy. Nothing could go wrong.

Also on board, there’s the creepy old neighbour – Betty Buckley as Gloria – and a doctor who reminded me of the Skype call used to fill in some medical waffle in M Night Shyamalan’s Split. That, and a pair of strong young performers, Pyper Braun and Taegen Burns, the former as the youngest of Jessica’s stepchildren proving once again that youngsters in horror movies are worth double the best visual effect.

I’m going plot-light, just to say that here, the build-up, and the brief teases of the imaginary relationships we get as the film escalates, are skillful. Unsurprisingly so: Wadlow has form here, and I remember for a solid hour of Truth Or Dare really being taken in by that particular film. We’re also in the Blumhouse sandbox, of primarily a single location with a tight cast, and a rich horror idea. Until, well, we’re not. That, and the score from Bear McCreary is really good, and thoroughly joining in the fun.

About an hour into the film – and it’s quite a lean movie – along comes what you could politely call ‘The Explanation’. In hindsight, I think I’d have preferred an A4 handout or two afterwards. The film basically stops so that one character can explain, in surprising detail, what’s actually going on to another character.

Then, the explanation continues as another character gets involved and layer upon layer of the stuff is thrown in. Just shoot, I screamed! Stop farting about with the ball and get a shot in! Instead, at the key moment, Imaginary undoes its simplicity, takes a chance – and I’m not criticising it for that – but loses its footing dramatically.

Such a shame. In the early stages of the film there are moments of dialogue that feel like bullet lists of backstory, but I can live with that if it gets things moving. I understand that, and it’s done quick. The last third of Imaginary throw dispenses with simplicity, and it never recovers. Much like Jeff Wadlow’s most successful movie to date, the aforementioned Truth Or Dare, there’s a real kernel of an idea here. In both cases, I wish the respective films would have the courage to not overload things.

A frustrating film, then. I loved the idea, I like the performances, and there are moments that stick out. I’m also not really a fan of people like me telling people like Jeff Wadlow how to make their films. He’s better at those than me.

But Jeff: please, next time, just shoot.

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