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Movie Review: “ABIGAIL” is a bloody fun dance of death

Thursday, April 11, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens and Alisha Weir
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Written by Stephen Shields and Guy Busick

First, just to set the record straight: ABIGAIL is not and never was a remake of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. It began as an original concept by screenwriter Stephen Shields, and the title character is quite a bit “younger” than the one played by Gloria Holden in the 1936 film. Still, the Radio Silence team of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and co-scripter Guy Busick cast a wink at their studio’s monster-movie heritage in ABIGAIL’s introductory sequence, as their little undead ballerina (Alisha Weir) pirouettes to the same selection from SWAN LAKE used during the opening credits of the ’31 DRACULA.

In most other ways, ABIGAIL is the very model of a modern horror film, from its attitudes to its explicitness. By (and especially during) its conclusion, this flick has shed enough blood to feed a whole coven of vampires. And in its combination of gruesome thrills and sardonic humor, it is very much recognizable as the work of the people behind the last two SCREAM entries and especially READY OR NOT, whose premise it essentially inverts. This time, it’s a lone female stalking her captors through a big house with murderous intent rather than the other way around.

Given that the marketing and promotion have unavoidably centered on Abigail’s vampiric nature, it’s a bit of a surprise that it isn’t revealed until close to the movie’s halfway point. The good news is that there’s plenty in what happens before to keep us engaged even as we know what’s coming. No sooner has Abigail returned home from that opening rehearsal than she is grabbed by a motley but highly coordinated gang who spirit her off to an ornate mansion in the woods, intending to ransom her for $50 million. There’s a quick, perhaps inevitable echo of Quentin Tarantino when Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito), who has brought this group together, gives them all Rat Pack-based code names to cover up their true identities, and the script and performances quickly and efficiently establish their personalities. There’s the handsome and ruthless Frank (Dan Stevens), who seems to be the most in charge; Sammy (Kathryn Newton), the young and flighty computer expert; Rickles (William Catlett), the all-business weapons man; Peter (Kevin Durand), the big, dumb but likable Quebecois muscle; Dean (the late Angus Cloud), the hedonistic wheelman; and Joey (Melissa Barrera), who feels the most empathy for the girl they’ve handcuffed and blindfolded in an upstairs bedroom. (The scenes of little Abigail getting roughed up might have been upsetting to watch if not for the knowledge of what she’s really all about.)

Joey also has all her cohorts’ numbers, and reveals them in a scene that’s well-written and -played enough to take the curse off the exposition. Part of the fun of a film like this is watching how its band of miscreants react under pressures both internal and external, and the filmmakers get some juicy conflict going here, especially when they learn something unexpected about Abigail (having nothing to do with her blood-drinking nature). Then her fangs come out, the tables are turned and the, ahem, stakes are exponentially raised. There’s an infectious, dark-humored glee one can feel the writers and directors taking in having these wannabe criminal masterminds attempt to defend themselves and fight back against their supernatural foe, only to find themselves severely outmatched.

All the actors attack their roles with vigor and enthusiasm, with Stevens perhaps rising to the top as the member of the group who knows most what he’s doing, and it still may not be enough. Well, almost to the top: the standout is Weir, commanding the screen despite her small stature and effortlessly switching from apparently helpless, terrified child to savage predator with a mordant sense of humor. Also a terrific physicality, as Abigail incorporates her dance moves into her attacks (kudos to movement coach/choreographer Belinda Murphy); she clearly enjoys being a creature of the night, and Weir is clearly taking a corresponding delight in portraying this extremely active little monster. She also holds up under the onslaught of blood with the best of ’em, and expresses Abigail’s inner beast with the help of vivid makeup effects by Liz Byrne and Matthew Smith.

All the craftsmanship throughout ABIGAIL is very fine, with special note due to production designer Susie Cullen, who turns the central Wilhelm Manor (named for the scream?) into an intricate, ornate environment that’s both inviting and threatening. The fact that the place is automated and traps the team of kidnappers within its walls means that one of the later revelations is not too much of a surprise, though the film does land a couple more twists on the way to its conclusion. One of them involves another hint of a connection between ABIGAIL and its decades-ago predecessors in Universal’s horror lineage, a little tease in a movie that otherwise goes for broke in highly entertaining fashion.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).