Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Abigail’ is a Bloody, But Delayed Crowdpleaser

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gilletti
Writers: Stephen Shields, Guy Busick
Stars: Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Alisha Weir

Synopsis: After a group of criminals kidnap the ballerina daughter of a powerful underworld figure, they retreat to an isolated mansion, unaware that they’re locked inside with no normal little girl.

Along with its three free reservations per week, waived online booking fees, rewards system, and snack discounts, an AMC Stubs A List membership also promises a con amidst its many pros: You’ll have to see the same trailers over and over again. Despite there being plenty of titles to be excited about — especially as we inch closer to a summer season that, while noticeably strike-impacted, remains populated with buzzy must-sees — one can only watch the trailer for A Quiet Place: Day One so many times. Audiences around the world could be heard collectively groaning late last year every time previews for Argylle, Madame Web, and Bob Marley: One Love played in excruciating succession; perhaps it’s no coincidence that those three films are among the worst this year has offered.

Thankfully, the trailer for the third entry in the A Quiet Place saga is relatively wordless, much like its predecessors, so its preview doesn’t reveal too much beyond the Day One’s basic prequel setup. The same can’t be said for most horror trailers, partially because it’s hard to get mainstream audiences to buy in on an original genre film without massive stars, and also because the hook for most horror films is the twist. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating when the trailer for Universal’s Speak No Evil, an upcoming remake of a Danish hit from 2022, includes a number of the original’s most unsettling revelations in its ostensible “preview” for a movie filled with twists. It’s not something you’d clock if you haven’t seen the new film’s source text, but it may become a cause for irritation once you’ve purchased a ticket.

Such is a common grievance when it comes to Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Abigail, though I’m not sure the same sort of criticisms apply. Let’s just get it out of the way: Abigail (Alisha Weir) is a vampire. That “wrinkle” revealed in the film’s trailer, a terrifying stumper for the band of would-be crooks who thought they’d merely abducted a 12-year-old ballerina with an uber rich father from whom they’d demand millions in ransom money. No, this motley crew of criminals, given Rat Pack-inspired nicknames by their boss for the night, Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito), has seemingly been tasked with a chore that is much more ominous than meets the eye. Not only must they keep this preteen alive for 24 hours until her billionaire daddy’s check clears, but they, too, must survive. Not quite the smash-and-grab job they all had in mind.

Sure, the idea of Joey (Melissa Barrera), Frank (Dan Stevens), Sammy (Kathryn Newton), Peter (Kevin Durand), Rickles (Will Catlett), and Dean (the late Angus Cloud) kidnapping a little girl and drinking their way through an evening that will result in the swelling of each of their bank accounts isn’t much of a sell. But there are a few back channels I wish Abigail’s promotional campaign would have considered taking. For one, the soft-if-unsurprising tease that the members of this crew do, indeed, mysteriously killed off, one by one, “mysteriously” being the operative word. Sure, an amateur detective likely could have deduced that the titular kidnapee might have something to do with it, but the “how” doesn’t need to be unveiled so easily. It’s worth noting that the movie’s big, vampirical reveal doesn’t arrive until it’s one-third of the way over, a choice that undoubtedly works on those unfamiliar with the film’s ads, but leaves AMC’s most dutiful soldiers wondering, “Hey, when’s this kid gonna bare her fangs?”

Part of the problem with this extended prologue is its overly general build-up, one that is frustratingly summarized in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it monologue from Joey, who pins down the defining characteristics of her fellow conspirators with startling immediacy (Not that the script Barrera is working with does her any favors in this department). Joey ascertains that Frank is a former cop turned corrupt criminal; Sammy is a hacker, but a teenage runaway first and foremost; Peter is all muscle, but his bulk hides an emotionally-stunted interior; Rickles is ex-military, the soulful type; and Dean is a driver, but he’s hardly a pro. Frank does his part by reading Joey like a book, spotting a candy affectation that screams “ex-junkie,” and her matronly ways with Abigail, the sign of a mother itching to get the child she abandoned back. We spend so much time on exposition that its feather-light delivery — and its contrived callbacks later in the film — make it all feel a bit wasteful. 

Thankfully, the fun is right around the corner, handcuffed in the other room. Once Abigail makes her intentions (and abilities) clear, Abigail delivers on the comedically-gory promises that Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have been cashing in on ever since 2019’s Ready or Not launched them into this overdone genre hybrid’s pantheon. Though the duo, known professionally as “Radio Silence”, started out by contributing to the original V/H/S anthology in 2012, it was Ready or Not that branded them with the reputation for mastering the blend between humor and horror without relying too heavily on either element. Now, for better or for worse, they’re saddled with it, and while Abigail occasionally seems to be hell-bent on recreating the laughs and scares of Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s 2019 hit — not to mention its hide-and-seek elements — it does just enough to pave a way of its own.

Much of that is due to how game its central players are to take part in its hijinks, even if the schtick inches its way towards being tiresome after a while. Barrera and Stevens, top-billed and thus getting the most time to cook here, are perfectly fine foils for one another; Joey’s earnest, level temperament contrasts nicely with the brash, albeit grating style of Frank’s alpha mentality. Plus, in addition to their trademark genre-fusion, Abigail’s directing partners have a knack for infusing their heroines with an offscreen arc that narrowly escapes universality, Joey’s being her aforementioned hopes to rebuild a relationship with her son. Newton and Durand take on their roles in an “Odd Couple” pairing that goes down with a refreshing zest; imagine Jerry remaining a mouse while Tom took the form of a lion. But it’s Weir’s show, a performance as… well, as campy as mainstream horror tends to offer these days, as if M3GAN’s titular robot spent her whole movie twirling around in that hallway.

That a portion of this review turned its attention to the film’s mismarketing — er, its over-marketing — is no fault of Radio Silence, nor their collaborators. What they have with Abigail is a crowd-pleaser coated in blood and guts, overflowing with likable misfits, and carrying enough emotional weight to interest those less interested in seeing heads roll. What I wish their studio had trusted them to do is another story, similar to the one Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, and co. are telling here: Gathering a group of strangers in a dark place with one common goal, only to watch them discover, one by one, and to their surprise, that something sinister is afoot. What a concept.

Grade: C+

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