Directed by Stobe Harju
A joint production from Canada and Finland, director Stobe Harju’s wistful fantasy horror, Imaginaerum, uses the construct of mental illness to tell a very intimate story on a grand scale. Although the flights of fancy on display may only exist within the lead character’s mind, the stakes are still high enough to influence the real world and threaten the well-being of everyone involved.
An aging musician and war veteran, Tom Whitman (played with pathos by Francis X. McCarthy), is in the last throes of dementia as he regresses to a boyhood state inside of his mind. A snowman adorning flight goggles and a snoopy cap that Tom made as a child suddenly comes to life, guiding him through a winding, twisting, psychological journey that has the potential to heal him or lead to his eventual doom. Meanwhile, his uncaring daughter Gem (Keyanna Fielding) must delve into her father’s nonsensical musical – an obsession that drove her father deeper into his own imagination and further away from his family – in order to come to terms with her own feelings of abandonment.
As the younger Tom inside his own dream begins to suspect that his guide is actually quite dangerous, he realizes he must fight off the darkness inside him by using his most cherished memories from the real world. As he discovers more around him, the characters begin to perform a series of macabre musical numbers in steampunk-inspired clothing accompanied by some rockin’ heavy metal riffs. It’s not genetic opera; it’s degenerative opera. These songs are entertaining enough and they don’t pop up too often over the course of the film to grow tiresome. They also help to drive home the importance of music in Tom’s life and, more to the point, how important it is for his daughter to rifle through his notes in order to unlock “the most beautiful melody ever created by man” – a piece of music that will allow her to forgive and help the father to forget.
The quest to write this melody has haunted Tom and does so even more as he approaches death. Smartly, the song itself is never played in the film in its entirety (how could it live up to all this buildup?), and the whole concept is a little reminiscent of the song “Tribute” by Tenacious D. Tom and his daughter, working together from two different dimensions, must race against time to complete the piece and shake Tom out of his mindwalk down memory lane. As they get closer, the once affable snowman becomes the villain, representing the disease and the young Tom’s haunted past involving his own father.
Imaginaerum is filled with gothic imagery, from an arabesque statue of a trapped dancer to faceless toy soldiers that actually wind up helping our protagonist more than terrorizing him. The costumes in the fantasy world are soaked in deep reds and there’s also plenty of leather, while the real world is mostly washed out in white, antiseptic backgrounds. The overly large family mansion where a lot of the action takes place in, especially towards the end, looks both inviting and foreboding, but looks like the perfect setting for the telling of a dark fable on a cold night.
Quite literally a requiem for a dream, the elderly Tom Whitman always cared more about his imagination and his musical inner world than the real world and his family, so naturally his dementia traps him in the dream world he so cherishes until he realizes why he has been imprisoned in the first place. The climax culminates in a wonderful roller coaster sequence as Tom speeds along laid tracks that are probably his own brain neurons fighting to stay connected so he doesn’t derail.
There’s a soap opera sweetness to the film as a whole that works within the dreamy filter that most of the story resides in. Beyond the fantasy and horror elements, Imaginaerum is really a story about family and how sometimes it’s necessary to let go of the past to truly embrace the present.
3 out of 5