The Late Late Late Toy Show | Imaginary Gives Horror The Ol’ College Try

The first thing I ever wrote for Headstuff, four years ago to the month, was a review of Fantasy Island, a generally reviled horror film by Jeff Wadlow that I couldn’t help but be somewhat charmed by. A lot can change in four years, but I appear to still be willing to traipse to the cinema to watch generally reviled horror films by Jeff Wadlow, because this week I went to watch ‘Imaginary.’ And as it happens, I still seem to find Wadlow’s films more likeable than they receive credit for being.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to die on the hill proclaiming that Imaginary is an artistic triumph. But it is a triumph for spirit, and sincerity, and a willingness to relentlessly and optimistically throw shit at the wall even if most of it isn’t sticking. This is more than could have been expected considering the film has been widely compared with Ted and M3gan. There are obvious similarities to M3gan in the plot, both featuring a child developing a troubling attachment to a seemingly innocent toy. But while in M3gan the toy is a M3gan, in Imaginary the toy is a teddy bear, and the teddy bear is naughty, like in Ted. But in Ted, that naughtiness manifests itself through the medium of wisecracks and swearing, while in Imaginary, it takes the form of kidnapping children and taking them to a nightmare realm. Thus ends my essay on the similarities and differences between the plots of Ted, M3gan, and Imaginary.

The essay comparing the vibes of those films, however, is only just beginning. Both Ted and M3gan are winking at the audience and nudging them in the ribs. You don’t need me to explain what the joke is in Ted when the teddy bear hangs out with prostitutes. I felt M3gan was a decent film, but even though it claims to be a straight up horror, it features enough moments where the titular sentient evil robot best friend makes an amusingly inappropriate remark or does a funny dance or kills someone in a stylishly blood-splattery kind of way that it’s clearly hedging its bets. If you don’t find M3gan scary, it’s willing to pretend it’s actually a comedy, and vice versa.

The point is, that does not happen at all with Imaginary. It is 100% all in on its premise, in which Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moves back into her childhood home with her husband and stepchildren, and the younger stepdaughter Alice starts hanging around with a scary teddy bear called Chauncey. Alice’s obsession with the bear grows, she starts to behave in strange and frightening ways, and then there’s a little plot twist in the middle that I actually thought was quite effective. Unfortunately, any hope that the film might be properly good is dashed during its final third when, to be frank, Imaginary reveals itself to be a bunch of hoary old bullshit. Jessica and the kids voyage off to the aforementioned nightmare realm, where dream logic applies and is used to justify all manner of complete nonsense that makes your head hurt. It should objectively be very annoying that you sit through a solid eighty minutes of Imaginary just to get to a point where Wadlow (who wrote the film as well as directed it) can just make up anything he likes to drag the story to something resembling a conclusion.


And yet… I liked the sinister, murky design of the nightmares, and I liked the fact that they went there in the first place and really attempted to create something surreal and unabashedly scary. Even when the artifice of the imagination world where anything that Wadlow needs to happen, can happen is at its most obvious, it never feels like the result of laziness; if anything, he’s trying too hard, getting carried away, and not really being able to think of any other plausible way to tie everything together. There are no self deprecating jokes in Imaginary. The clumsy dialogue that’s scattered across the movie isn’t purposeful. The lapses into naked plot exposition come because of a conviction that this story is important and must be understood and explained. There are themes of intergenerational trauma! It’s not handled subtly, but it’s not tasteless either, and come on, they’re trying. Imaginary is a stupid film, but it believes in itself.

None of this, of course, adds up to a recommendation. It is damning with faint praise. Or perhaps it’s praise with hints of the irony that I’m so grateful isn’t apparent in Imaginary. So here’s a compliment delivered with 100% sincerity; I don’t regret spending money on tickets to Jeff Wadlow’s horror oeuvre. I’ll do it again, and I won’t even object if it’s sooner than another four years.

Imaginary is currently playing in Irish cinemas.

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