de facto film reviews 2 stars

The term “safe” is often used in film criticism to describe a product with tried-and-true elements that appeal to a general audience. It is neither excellent nor terrible, but somewhere in the middle qualitatively. Early in its inception, Blumhouse did not fit the mold; instead, it produced films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Get Out, and others that pushed boundaries and revolutionized new forms of horror. Today, Blumhouse movies are regarded as “safe” more often than not—with a few exceptions—and their latest theatrical release, Imaginary, is an undeniable example of the term.

Imaginary quickly establishes a familiar setup if you have seen any suburban horror films made in the last decade and a half: a family moves to a new house in a quiet neighborhood and uncovers some dark secret or evil entity threatening their lives. At some point, the main character and their kids are left alone, spooky things happen, and there is some wildly fantastical or intense end sequence. In this case, a new stepmother, Jessica (DeWanda Wise), her husband, and his two daughters, Taylor and Alice (Taegen Burns and Pyper Braun, respectively), move into Jessica’s childhood home for a fresh start.

Imaginary - Alice and Chauncey

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Alice finds a teddy bear hidden in the basement and adopts it as her new imaginary friend, Chauncey. She soon begins allocating items for what she claims is Chauncey’s scavenger hunt game, which progressively gets darker and more demanding. Meanwhile, Taylor’s relationship with her stepmother becomes strained, and eerie supernatural shadows stalk Jessica while she seeks to unravel this terrible mystery. It is a tale as old as cinema, and Blumhouse has become famous for telling it in recent years. Imaginary does little to break out of this incredibly well-established formula, but it does have its moments of, you guessed it, imagination.

Director Jeff Wadlow’s horror story excels when Chauncey the Bear is on screen, talking as if through Alice, moving around inexplicably, or projecting its true self into the seemingly innocent domestic backdrops of Jessica’s home. Moreover, Imaginary’s finale is a wholly original, whacky, and well-designed practical set piece that significantly cranks the story’s intensity and features some of the movie’s best scares. Wise displays some good range as Jessica, who has an interesting enough backstory and some decent development, and kudos to Blumhouse for casting a Black woman as the star here.

Imaginary - Alice and Chauncey in Bed

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Beyond those points, Imaginary is much of the same. While the evil entity takes on a few horrifying shapes throughout the movie, and Wadlow attempts to elicit some jumps and build tension, the scary moments remain relatively predictable and lackluster; they never quite live up to the creativity suggested by the movie’s concept. Credit where it is due: Imaginary primarily relies on practical effects and, therefore, constructs a more tangible atmosphere than CGI would allow a project like this, but it rarely feels scary enough.

The horror scenes in the first two acts, with one or two exceptions, require more time and agency to bud into something more suspenseful and unique. Instead, they frequently aim to move on to the next part of the plot. When Imaginary lets the horror breathe, it usually incorporates tropes; how often have we seen the protagonist venture slowly into a dark basement, a child’s therapist catch some disturbing material on camera, or the unassuming toy act as bait for the real monster to leap out? Pepper in the stereotypical “sage” character and some heavy exposition, and you have Blumhouse’s Imaginary or any number of similar haunted house films.

Imaginary - Jessica and Dad

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Again, “safe” is the name of the game with Imaginary. It has its share of exciting, comedic, and even eerie moments, but consistency and the courage to be bold are sorely missing. The cast does a respectable job, but giving the viewer everything on a silver plate hampers their ability to tell the characters’ stories on a more emotional level. And despite a decent mystery, some plot elements are practically forgotten about. Given the subject matter, Blumhouse’s newest efforts will likely appeal to kids and parents looking for an unserious weekend watch. Still, for the most part, the insistence on familiarity and safety hinders Imaginary potential to be something other than just another haunted house movie about malicious imaginary friends. The one other good thing I can say about it is this: Imaginary is undoubtedly better than Night Swim.

Imaginary is now playing in theaters nationwide.