Imaginary Movie Friends: A Survey
From HARVEY to A MONSTER CALLS, a list of favorite liberating and/or terrifying figments
This elaborate, surprisingly somber fantasy from Spanish director J.A. Bayona—who made his English-language debut with 2012’s The Impossible, after his acclaimed 2007 first-feature The Orphanage—making this three “dark” stories involving children in a row—is an interesting use of a device now familiar to moviegoers. That would be the Imaginary Friend, an idea that has existed in various forms for a long time, but only graduated from psychiatric research to widespread popular consciousness within recent decades.
Imaginary friends have popped up onscreen in many guises over the years—more and more frequently, in fact. Sometimes they’re a source of comfort, sometimes a force for liberation or destruction. And sometimes they only appear to be imaginary friends, before turning out to be something else… in which case, you’re probably watching a horror movie. Here’s an overview of some notable cinematic Imaginary Friends to date:
In one of his signature roles, James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, a harmless if boozy bachelor. Nonetheless, he is the scandal of his small town—not for drinking, but for choice of “friends”: His constant companion is a 6’3.5" invisible rabbit, "Harvey." The curiosity of that doesn’t bother him one whit, nor the fact that no one else can see or hear Harvey. But it is very bothersome indeed to the widowed sister and snobby niece he lives with. Unable to withstand Elmwood’s “madness” anymore, they try getting him committed to the local sanitarium, where he’s diagnosed as having a “third-degree hallucination.”
When Mary Chase’s long-running Broadway comedy premiered in 1944, its “gimmick” seemed delightfully novel. But then, that was an era when mental illness was considered an embarrassment to be hushed up and locked away. The play, and Henry Koster’s hit 1950 film, felt fresh in its insistence that even delusions might serve a useful purpose in freeing us from oppressive social conformity. Harvey was surely an inspiration point when decades later Richard Kelly’s cult favorite Donnie Darko troubled Jake Gyllenthal with “Frank” (James Duval), a man in a creepy bunny costume who warns of imminent apocalypse, and who may or may not be a figment of Donnie’s imagination.
When children have imaginary friends in horror films, you can be sure something terrible is about to happen—whether the I.F. is warning them of that danger, or is in fact the danger itself in disguise. The latter was certainly the case with “Captain Howdy,” whom little Linda Blair tells her mother Ellen Burstyn is her invisible playmate. Unfortunately, that jolly seafarer turns out to be the ancient demon Pazuzu, he of imminent projectile-vomit-inducing and priest-snuffing fame.
Similar seemingly-innocuous harbingers of supernatural evil ghost-whispered child protagonists in The Amityville Horror and, more recently, the likes of Paranormal Activity 3, Lights Out and Hide and Seek. In that last, newly motherless Dakota Fanning’s grief takes the apparent form of cat-drowning, bloody-wall-scrawling pal “Charlie,” to surviving parent Robert De Niro’s alarm. On the other hand, croak-voiced finger puppet “Tony” in The Shining is there to protect Danny (Danny Lloyd) from the Overlook Hotel—and from increasingly berserk daddy Jack Nicholson, who gets his own I.F. in undead bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel).
The Imaginary Friend as childhood coping mechanism has surfaced in numerous films before A Monster Calls. Usually such figures are benign, as in the admittedly weird conceit of Gérard Depardieu as fantasized magician BFF to an orphaned little boy (Haley Joel Osment, who’d soon suffer The Sixth Sense’s much worse visions) in the 1996 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Bogus. But sometimes they’re anarchic forces for change, unleashing an unstoppable inner id whether the child in question (let alone the parents) is ready or not. Denounced by its own studio as (in one horrified executive’s words) a “children’s movie on drugs,” Dutch director Ate de Jong’s 1991 Drop Dead Fred is a manic mix of fantasy, low humor, and empowerment fable. As a kid, Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates) rebelled against her suffocatingly controlling mother (Marsha Mason) via the pranks of the titular I.F., a sort of punk leprechaun or adult-sized toddler on a sugar-high tear, played by Brit comedian Rik Mayall (of cult sitcom The Young Ones). As an adult, she's a doormat still stepped on by mom, and by a cheating husband, and practically everyone else. After decades’ hibernation, Fred romps to the rescue, wreaking embarrassing havoc but also giving the heroine strength to break free.
Because teenagers need I.F.’s, too, there is Miguel Arteta’s 2009 Youth in Revolt. This underrated adaptation of C.D. Payne’s cult tome had Michael Cera in typical form as unhappy high-school nerd Nick Twisp—and in most atypical form as Francois Dillinger, his assertive, egomaniacal doppelgänger. Unfortunately, in heedlessly doing everything Nick wouldn’t dare, Francois invariably lands Nick in serious trouble. Is his presence a lucky break or a psychotic one for our skittish hero? Either way, Nick is going to be a different man as a result—even if that man goes to jail.
Including David Fincher’s film of the Chuck Palahniuk novel here basically constitutes a massive spoiler in itself. But come on: If you’re reading this, you probably have seen Fight Club (at least once), and know all about the “big reveal” anyway. It was a surprise flop in 1999, presumably because audiences expecting a straightforward action movie were confounded by something considerably brainier and more perverse. Since then, however, this has become a film whose following is now so large it scarcely can count as “cult” anymore. Edward Norton plays the (notably nameless) yuppie malcontent whose tedious life changes when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an exhilarating force for impulse and destruction. Swept up in his new friend’s world of instant primal gratification, our protagonist loses “himself”—and it feels oh so good. For a while, at least.
A more somber but likewise tricksome venture into similar narrative territory arrived five years later with Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, for which the ever-body-modifying Christian Bale reportedly lost more than sixty pounds to play the titular figure. His bone-thin insomniac Trevor is a patently unwell factory hand who fears he’s being driven mad by malevolent coworker “Ivan,” whose existence no one else can confirm. If you prefer such conceits in more Oscar-friendly, Masterpiece Theatre-esque form, there’s always A Beautiful Mind (2001), in which influential college roommate Paul Bettany turns out to be an exceptionally vivid figment of future Nobel winner John Nash’s (Russell Crowe) brilliant but not always reality-anchored mind.
Many people prefer to believe Elvis is not dead. So it makes perfect sense than in this classic 1993 crime caper comedy directed by the late Tony Scott (Top Gun) from a Quentin Tarantino script, Christian Slater’s average-Joe hero Clarence should have as imaginary-friend The King himself. His idol (played by Val Kilmer) provides periodic serenading, emotional support, and advice that is considerably more profane (not to mention criminal) than Mr. Presley ever ventured in actual public life. But it works: As Elvis did in every Elvis movie ever, Clarence gets the girl (Patricia Arquette).
The pop-culture icon as I.F. is an arresting idea that has been put to good use in other films as well. Notable is Peter Jackson’s 1994 international breakthrough Heavenly Creatures, in which Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey played two real-life 1950s Christchurch teens whose wildly overactive imaginations—which include extensive fantasies of Hollywood tough-guy star Robert Mitchum—drive them to murder. More recently, longtime Canadian indie auteur Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) made Weirdos, a 1970s flashback that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this fall. Its young protagonist is an aspiring artist just figuring out his sexuality. His inspiration in all things is Andy Warhol (Rhys Bevan-John), who duly appears out of thin air several times during the film’s course, to serve a self-appointed role as the surprised lad’s “spirit animal.”
Though he’s continued to succeed as a director (with 2004 Biblical bloodbath The Passion of the Christ, and this year’s WWII pacifist gorefest Hacksaw Ridge), there arrived a point some time ago when the public ceased wanting to see Mel Gibson onscreen. His all-too-public meltdowns and the revelation of numerous unsavory sentiments towards Jews, gays, and whatnot suddenly made the prospect of enjoying his antics in further romcoms and action flicks unpalatable. Even after several years’ absence, nobody wanted to see him reprising the ass-kicking nutter of yore in recent flops like Get the Gringo, Machete Kills, or Blood Father.
His initial 2011 “comeback,” however, made a softer sort of “I’m crazy, can’t help it” plea for audience forgiveness. Directed by old friend Jodie Foster, The Beaver has Mel as Walter, a “hopelessly depressed” man separated from his wife (Foster) and sons (the eldest played by the late Anton Yelchin). Self-medicating with alcohol, on a whim he salvages a toothy rodent sock-puppet from a dumpster behind the liquor store. Later, said faux-beaver talks him out of a suicide attempt, and indeed seems quite willing and able to buck up Walter in every department of his hitherto wrecked life.
At first everyone is charmed by the deployment of this “prescription puppet,” assuming Walter is, y’know, consciously working through some stuff—after all, they all can see he’s providing its voice. (The beaver evidently did not come with ventriloquism instructions.) Things grow more problematic when it turns out that Walter won’t, and maybe can’t, let go of his furry pal. Not even in the shower. Not even during sex. Not even during sex in the shower.
If the notion of “Mel Gibson IS ‘The Muppet Madman’” sounds irresistibly perverse, The Beaver is in the end all too conventional, less an outré black comedy than a healing-the-dysfunctional-