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Abigail (18)

Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Screenplay: Stephen Shields, Guy Busick

Starring: Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Alisha Weir

Running time: 109 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

It’s a pretty obvious rule of thumb, but… never, ever fall for pre-production rumours or online speculation when it comes to secretive film projects. For at least a year or so, Abigail was known (and listed on IMDB and other film production directories) as being the “Untitled Universal Monster Film”. All that was known for sure was that it had a pretty cool genre-savvy cast (Dan Stevens, Melissa Barrera, Kathryn Newton, Giancarlo Esposito) and that it was likely to feature updates of classic creatures from the Universal Studios horror stable. And that’s all it took for… *ahem*… “reliable sources” to leak details and report news that this going to be an all-out monster-fest along the lines of House of Frankenstein (1944), Or that it was a remake of a 1930’s classic film. Or that it was another stab at setting up the failed “Dark Universe”. Uhh… no. It’s about a ballerina-obsessed girl with vampiric tendencies, taking on a bunch of professional criminals who are familiar with True Blood and the Twilight franchise. It’s directed by the Radio Silence duo, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are currently highly regarded for the last two Scream films, not to mention Ready or Not. As we seem to be drifting back to the days of staggered delays between the UK and US releases once again (*cough*Sting*cough*Maxxxine*), it’s nice to see this highly anticipated gore fest get a simultaneous release in both territories. Hopefully, this isn’t an Abi-fail.  


It kicks off with a heist-like opening showing some professional crims preparing a kidnapping, juxtaposing with the sweet scenes of a young girl practising “Swan Lake” ballet moves on a stage. This is Abigail (played pitch-perfectly by the extremely talented Irish actress Alisha Wier), and the crims are a motley bunch straight out of a Tarantino screenplay. Despite a couple of complications, the gang abduct Abigail and take her to a remote mansion in deserted woodland. Here they meet Lambert (Esposito) and are told to babysit the girl until a kidnap ransom has been met. Lambert also gives them Rat Pack nicknames to use with each other, so they can maintain anonymity. So it transpires that “Joey” (Barrera), “Frank” (Stevens), “Sammy” (Newton), and the others are stuck in the middle of nowhere with their young captive. Except there’s more to this girl than meets the eye and all hell is about to break loose.


Unless you’ve been walking around with a bag on your head for two months, have avoided trailers, missed looking at posters, and closed your eyes when scanning online film reviews, you know what the gig is with Abigail. She’s a vamp, a fangster, a blood-sucker, an aficionado of haemoglobin, turned in youth she has gone to meet the choir detestable (@Copyright Monty Python 1969). There’s no point calling that fact *a spoiler alert* because 99% of the people going to watch it will be waiting for the moment that she bares her manky incisors and dances up the stair bannister like an undead M3gan because that’s how it’s been marketed. So it’s a little bit of a surprise just how long the film drags its ass getting to that reveal and then muck about with the concept to any significant degree. In fact, the first third of the film is very much in the vein (hah!) of the original From Dusk Til Dawn, in that it could easily be a non-supernatural crime caper from the keyboard of Guy Ritchie or someone comparable… until the vamp switch is flicked on and uber-gore kicks in. We even have some tension in the group before the reveal, when they think that their charge is related to an infamous crime kingpin, and they may be targets of a notorious hitman.


Of course, when the blood does hit the fan, and the genre tone becomes more prevalent, the fun kicks in and it very much earns its overseas R-rating. That’s not to say it’s outrageously offensive in any way (although there’s a staggering amount of fake blood sprayed about), as most horror fans will find it more cartoonish than anything else. In terms of style and lore, if there was a shared Fright Night cinematic universe, it would easily slot into it, despite simple comparisons with Buffy or M3gan. The tussles between the gang and the antagonist are pretty good, even if they are mostly framed to “Swan Lake” music. But it’s the character interplay that provides most of the high points.


Everyone in the tight cast has their part to play and moments to shine, including the late Angus Cloud as the annoying “Dean”. As already mentioned, Wier is pretty fantastic and succeeds in convincing in all aspects of her character, including the dancing and the fighting. As seasoned horror actors, Newton and Barrera are also good in their roles, which are far from being token scream-queen parts. Special recognition must go to Stevens though. The ex-Downton Abbey star must have it written into his contracts that he won’t sign onto a film now unless he can out-ham everyone else, adlib like crazy, have a good time, and get all the best lines (see Godzilla x Kong and Cuckoo). He’s on particularly good form here (“Sammy… Those are fuckin’ onions!”), even if the constant F-bombing does get a bit tiresome towards the end. Kevin Durand as “Peter” also has some laugh-out-loud moments as the resident knucklehead-with-a-heart who takes a while to digest everything that’s going on.


As for the film and narrative itself… well, it’s an easy watch and is pretty fun. Especially for die-hard horror fans who will appreciate some of the tropes and genre nods that proliferate the proceedings. This includes moments such as the discussion between the characters about the existence of vampires… after being attacked by one. Refreshingly, they’re all on the same page pretty quickly and the one potential cynic is simply not allowed to deny what they’ve seen. This is followed by a realistic exchange of what would actually kill one, what is bullshit, and whether Anne Rice or Twilight is closest to the truth. There are also some nice touches on visual and thematic points. An early overhead shot of Abigail dancing on a black stage, flapping her arms in rhythm to the music, makes her look like a bat in flight. A character being stabbed by a crucifix might (or might not) be referencing a certain scene from The Exorcist.


The only real bugbear is that despite the hyperbole about the blood and the decent performances, there’s nothing really new here, either in terms of the lore or of the genre in general. There are three very clear acts, with the third one being arguably the most interesting one (full of power plays and character motivation). But otherwise, and despite some genuinely funny moments, there are no surprises or moments of innovation. Situations play out as you would expect, and you can’t help hoping for some extra twists or a narrative rug being pulled out from under your feet. Imagine if the vampire angle had been kept super-secret and a surprise at screenings. Or maybe one of the other characters could have been revealed as a werewolf or zombie or something. As it stands, it just progresses as you would expect a vampire film to. There’s nothing wrong with Abigail on the quality, performance, or exuberance front. You just wish that it had an extra layer of emotion or invention to knock it out of the park. Good fun, just not outstanding. With some good critical reviews once again (have mainstream critics come around to horror at long last?) it’ll be interesting to see how this one does at the box office. Hopefully better than Renfield.

Fun and bloody, with a great turn from Weir and some prime ham from Stevens. It plays with well-known crime and horror tropes and is genuinely funny at times. But it doesn’t really do anything new or inventive in the genre and it’s fairly low on surprises. Nevertheless, a solid studio comedy-horror that isn’t afraid to splash the red stuff.
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