They have been known to get us through tough times in our childhoods, but what happens to imaginary friends when we get older and leave them behind for the “real world”? Do they simply vanish, or does some part of them remain, waiting for us to return for a playdate that will never happen? And what if they get impatient while they wait, with their own imagination becoming dark and twisted as the days turn into years and they wait for us to return so that we can be friends forever? These intriguing (and unsettling) questions are explored in the new horror movie Imaginary, a supernatural slice of gateway horror that takes some unexpectedly eerie turns and introduces viewers to Chauncey the Bear, a new horror villain who doesn’t play nice.

At first, moving back into her childhood home seems like a fresh start for Jessica (DeWanda Wise), a familiar place where she can connect with her stepdaughters Taylor (Taegen Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun) while her husband (Tom Payne) goes on tour with his band. Jessica's vivid nightmares have even gone away, and she has more time to focus on writing and illustrating the follow-up to her popular children’s book. But when Alice forms an unsettling attachment to a teddy bear named Chauncey that she found in the basement and a mysterious neighbor (Betty Buckley) recalls Jessica’s troubled past with her father (Samuel Salary), Jessica gradually discovers that her tortured past, in particular her forgotten imaginary friend, has been waiting for her to come back home, and it never wants to let her—or her new family—leave again.

Directed by Jeff Wadlow in his third collaboration with Blumhouse (following Truth or Dare and Fantasy Island), Imaginary is never quite what you think it is, packing a lot of storytelling into its 104-minute runtime and taking unexpected turns just when you think you know what well-worn horror route it’s going to take next—perhaps taking one or two turns too many, as it does feel like it’s trying to be several movies at once, which can be jarring at times. Through it all, though, the screenplay (written by Wadlow, Greg Erb, and Jason Oremland) always keeps an admirable focus on its characters and their connections with one another, whether they’re struggling to get along in the real world or relying on each other to survive the nightmarish realm known as the Never-Ever—a place that many children enter… and never leave.

Those character dynamics are bolstered by strong performances from DeWanda Wise (who also is one of the film’s executive producers), Taegen Burns, and Pyper Braun, who believably portray a complex and sometimes strenuous relationship between stepmother and stepdaughters. Even without the movie’s horror elements, the film’s examination of family ties—both broken and new—are fascinating to watch, especially as the film dives into the dangers of not healing from past traumas that can come back to haunt you (something that was also explored quite well in Insidious: The Red Door). And as someone who really enjoyed Betty Buckley’s performance in Split, it’s great to see the iconic actor back in the Blumhouse fold in Imaginary, this time playing a more enigmatic character who also gets the movie’s most memorable moment (one that hearkens back to Deep Blue Sea—IYKYK).

Past trauma is what Jessica’s former imaginary friend, known as the Entity, preys upon as she moves back into her childhood home. The Entity has several forms, but it primarily operates as Chauncey the teddy bear, who makes for a memorable mascot of malevolence. While he’s not as active as some might anticipate (he’s somewhere between the deceivingly still Annabelle and the hyperactive Chucky when it comes to how he haunts his victims), Chauncey still could be a horror icon in the making just based on how well he toes the line between being disarmingly cute and creepy.

It could have been easy to have Chauncey the Bear be the only version of Jessica’s imaginary friend, but Wadlow and company smartly incorporate other nightmarish editions of the Entity, including Chauncey’s “Bear Beast” mode that could give Cocaine Bear a run for his money and a giant spider that’s a twisted version of an arachnid from Jessica’s children’s book. These multiple monsters not only add variety to the film’s supernatural scares, but they also provide a platform for the palpable practical effects by Mike Elizalde (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and his amazing team at Spectral Motion, whose creative creatures lurk behind the doorways and down the checkered-tiled halls of the Entity’s nightmare realm.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Imaginary may depend on just how willing you are to go along for the ride as the film persistently shifts gears and aims to subvert expectations—perhaps too often at times. But if, like me, you enjoy when a movie takes big swings and even bigger chances (despite not always paying off), you should find enough PG-13 scares to enjoy in Imaginary, making it an accessible gateway horror movie even if it’s not quite the film you expect it to be going into it. Here’s hoping we get to see an Imaginary sequel in the future, because although I do wish he had done a little more in this film, it feels like Chauncey is just getting started as the latest addition to Blumhouse’s roster of horror villains. Who knows, maybe we could even see a M3GAN and Chauncey crossover one day…

Movie Score: 3.5/5

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.