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‘Imaginary’ Review: A Sinister Teddy Bear and Too Much Schlock Metaphysics

It used to be that if a horror movie wasn’t very good, it was probably too simplistic in its fear mechanics: stalker on the loose, ghost in the attic, don’t go in the basement. Today, though, it’s often the case that megaplex horror schlock isn’t too simple — it’s too busy, too fraught with convolutions. Instead of jump scares, we get world-building hoops to jump through.

“Imaginary,” a watchable mess of a child’s-play fright flick, exemplifies the trend of overwrought too-muchness. The movie pivots around a little girl, Alice (Pyper Braun), who in the basement of her new home discovers an old Teddy bear, named Chauncey, who becomes her imaginary friend. But, of course, Chauncey isn’t just the sum of his stuffing; he’s a sinister presence with a life of his own. In the ancient days (i.e., before the “Conjuring” films mainstreamed the overcomplication of bare-bones horror), “Imaginary” would have been an elemental spook show about a plaything that wreaks havoc by doing dastardly things. It would have been Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” drenched in blood.

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I’m not saying that would have been a good movie, but it probably would have worked on its own grisly, quasi-campy terms. Now, though, that basic story isn’t good enough. It’s got to be layered with trappings skimmed off the top of assorted genres. Alice has an imaginary friend, but so did her stepmother, Jessica (DeWanda Wise), who lived in the same house until she was five. The family, which includes Alice’s sister, the bratty teenage Taylor (Taegen Burns), and the two girls’ father, Max (Tom Payne), a hipster rock musician who’s like the angelic version of a Sebastian Stan character, have moved back in, and the first thing they notice is the drawings that Jessica covered the walls with when she was a little girl. She went on to become an artist — an author-illustrator of bestselling children’s books — but those drawings, plus some cryptic scrawled messages, hold clues to the big mystery. So does one character out of Jessica’s books, Simon the Spider (the foe of Molly Millipede), who comes to life as an oversize nightmare.

I haven’t even mentioned the underworld Jessica gets sucked into, a place that looks like a darkened video-game maze. It’s the chamber of hell where the spirit of imaginary friends holds sway throughout time. They will come to get you — unless you can shove them back into the wall and seal that wall with greasy blue paint. If the movie’s tone is busy, its rules are arbitrary.

In its skittery, overlayered trickiness, what “Imaginary” lacks is a grounded feeling for the psychology that binds children to the friends they make up. “M3GAN,” which was also a Blumhouse production (a far superior one), had that kind of catchy and scannable horror-film psychology in the relationship that developed between Violet McGraw’s Cady and her lethal robot-doll BFF. But psychology, in too many films these days, is the dramatic ingredient that gets left on the shelf (that’s true even in a certain current acclaimed big hit — a movie with more sand than psychology). “Imaginary,” despite a few creepy moments, is starved for scenes that make the fear it’s showing you relatable.

There’s a moment, of the purest camp, where a therapist is interviewing Alice, with Chauncey the Teddy bear sitting there, and Alice is speaking in both their voices. Suddenly, the bear talks without her. The therapist, scared and disturbed, asks Jessica if Alice has been studying ventriloquism. I guess that’s a rational question, but it’s also a preposterous one. The other element “Imaginary” lacks is any supple sense of family dynamics. The director, Jeff Wadlow, establishes to the point of overkill that Taylor resents the existence of her stepmother, but the film still makes Jessica into too much of an interloper. The girls’ real mother, it turns out, was a violent head case, which just tosses one more layer of undigested material into the stew.

That said, you know you’re in the hands of a horror-movie pro whenever Betty Buckley shows up, in oversize glasses and clipped Middle American suburban dowager hair, and with an intrusive smirk, as Gloria, the busybody of a neighbor who used to babysit for Jessica when she was a little girl. Gloria, who discovered the sinister metaphysics of the imaginary-friend world back then, has written a historical tome about the subject. She’s officially obsessed, and might even be one of the villains. Yet Buckley, with the teasing clarity of her delivery, makes Gloria that rare thing, a Karen you don’t want to stop listening to.

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