Ah, the latest chapter in Universal’s ongoing effort to revamp their old monster lineup from a century ago. As if all those monsters (except the Creature from the Black Lagoon) haven’t entered the public domain in the time since.

Dracula has had a particularly rough go of it. His central role in the huge Van Helsing crossover of 2004 was an industry-shaking travesty. Then they tried to make him the standard-bearer for a new megafranchise, right before we all collectively agreed that Dracula Untold (2014) was a disgraceful, terrible mistake we’d all be better off forgetting. Did Universal ever announce who would’ve played Dracula in the aborted Dark Universe? Did anyone even care about that to begin with?

Then came The Invisible Man (2020), a post-Dark Universe standalone feature that reimagined the title character as an abusive husband. They kept the budget relatively low (thank you, Blumhouse), they made it an R-rated film helmed by a director with proven horror credentials, and they updated the character to reflect the fears of a modern audience. And everyone at Universal jumped up and said “Holy shit, we finally found something that worked!”

Thus a female-driven standalone take on Dracula was promptly greenlit under Karyn Kusama, late of Jennifer’s Body. Alas, because 2020 was the worst year in recorded history, that project fell apart. But it looks like someone at Universal hadn’t completely forgotten the notion of an R-rated, female-driven, mid-budget, standalone Dracula update from a proven horror director.

So here we are with Abigail, in which Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (alias Radio Silence) are tasked with reviving Dracula on film like they revived the Scream franchise (which was promptly killed again by the producers and studio execs, but that’s another story). Let’s meet the victim pool, shall we?

  • Frank (Dan Stevens) is the hardass control freak mastermind of our heist team.
  • Joey (Melissa Barrera) is a young mother serving as the nurse/medic.
  • Sammy (Kathryn Newton) is the sassy tech expert of the crew.
  • Peter (Kevin Durand) is the sweet but dimwitted muscle.
  • Rickles (Will Catlett) is the resident marksman.
  • Dean the wheelman (the late Angus Cloud) is a horny inebriated douchebag and I’m happy to report that he dies first.

(Side note: All the characters’ names are aliases. If you can guess the name scheme before the film explicitly calls it out, I freely admit you are savvier than I am.)

Our team of criminals is hired by the mysterious Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) to kidnap the eponymous Abigail (Alisha Weir). Details are scarce — for culpability’s sake — but Abigail is clearly the daughter of a wealthy individual. Thus the plan is to kidnap the girl and imprison her in some remote mansion until a $50 million ransom can be collected and divvied up.

Trouble is, Abigail’s father turns out to be, uh… well, he’s never explicitly name-dropped, but he’s a certain bloodthirsty villain who’s gone by quite a few different names throughout the ages. And he gets a speaking cameo appearance by way of Matthew Goode at the end, that’s fun.

Anyway, suffice to say that Abigail turns out to be a centuries-old vampire and our victim pool is trapped in the mansion with her. Hilarity ensues.

Yes, what we’ve got here is a good old-fashioned matchup of “bad versus evil.” Our protagonists are criminal idiots, which means we get to enjoy watching them suffer and die. Our villain is an unholy abomination, so we get to enjoy watching her get brutally maimed over and over. No matter who loses, we all win!

If you’ve seen Ready or Not (and seriously, why the nine hells haven’t you seen Ready or Not?!), you should already know that Radio Silence are modern masters of the horror comedy. Those skills pay huge dividends when the criminal stooges bicker and fight amongst each other, and Abigail herself is goddamn creepy in ways that are delightfully engaging to watch. But the signature Radio Silence move has to be the spontaneous explosion into blood. When characters suddenly and violently disintegrated into tidal waves of blood in Ready or Not, it was right on the line between grotesque and hilarious. There will come a day when that trick is no longer scary or funny, but sure as fuck that day is not today.

Every last actor in the cast came ready to play. It certainly helps that so many actors in the cast (Dan Stevens, Kevin Durand, Kathryn Newton, Giancarlo Esposito…) have proven their ability to play villainous roles. As such, they can expertly keep the audience guessing as to how evil these characters really are and what they’re going to do next. The one exception is the instantly sympathetic Melissa Barrera, who’s quickly blossoming into a Final Girl par excellence. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the late Angus Cloud, who’s seriously so much fun to hate in this movie. And yes, I totally feel like an asshole, actively rooting for the character to get killed off only to find out that the actor is in fact actually dead. (RIP.)

As for Alisha Weir, it turns out the erstwhile Matilda is really fucking good at playing a powerful monster far older and smarter than she looks, expertly and effortlessly capable of playing the adults around her. Abigail is a dynamic character with all sorts of different modes to her, and Weir plays every step of the way like a champ. I’d be remiss not to point out the character’s ballerina motif, which adds so much flair in ways both small (the occasional twirl while she’s walking or leap while she’s running) and huge (dancing with a headless corpse). For the sake of the horror aspect, it’s crucial to remember that this is Abigail’s house, she’s got every advantage, and Weir appropriately plays her like Abigail is holding all the cards, even and especially when she’s tricking our hapless protagonists into thinking she’s helpless.

So what we’ve got here is a nicely effective horror/comedy/action potboiler, powered by a delightful cast and one of the most consistently successful director teams in the genre. But oh, there are some serious drawbacks.

As with any vampire story, the first question is always “What rules are we working with?” Trouble is, this movie buries the lead and waits until the midway point to make it a big reveal that vampires are in play. Yes, that means a nice bit of suspense as the characters point fingers and try to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, that means a good chunk of runtime is wasted while we wait for the characters to catch up with us. In turn, that means a lot of time that isn’t getting spent on the world-building and rules.

Even after the big reveal that Abigail is a vampire, the filmmakers are remarkably skittish about developing the lore. Again, this makes for some neat suspense as the characters try to suss out exactly what Abigail can do, how to hurt her, and which experiments will succeed or backfire with fatal results. The unfortunate downside is that the filmmakers show a nasty habit of painting themselves into a corner just to get themselves out by hand-waving a new rule. It makes for some shocking moments, granted, but it’s also some pathetically lazy writing. And this happens most often in the climactic third act, where such shoddy writing and hand-waving does the most damage.

The other big issue concerns the general theme of kids and absentee parents. Yes, it makes sense that the Prince of Darkness wouldn’t be a loving father, and it’s actually kind of endearing to see a young monster with enough of a heart to have some daddy issues. I need hardly add that making Joey — our de facto protagonist — a struggling mother gives makes a nice emotional connection for our hero and our villain to play with and/or take advantage of.

The problem is that the parental themes take a distant backseat to the horror/action. The film spends significantly more time on the characters trying to kill and outwit each other, rather than helping each other through their parental trauma. Which was absolutely the right move, don’t get me wrong.

The unfortunate trade-off is that precisely because Abigail is shown to be a deceitful bloodsucker, a lot of her more emotional moments are unreliable. For that matter, given how much the human characters are hiding from each other, we can’t exactly take Joey at her word either. Right up until the climax, we can’t be sure how much we know about either character is true. And it’s not like Joey has a whole lot of time to spend sorting that out while she’s running for her life. The upshot is that when the climax finally comes — as Abigail and Joey both make peace with their respective family baggage — it doesn’t land like it should.

Overall, Abigail has significant shortcomings when it comes to heart. But it makes up for that with elegant fights and stunts, rock-solid production design, gut-churning scares, and a delightfully sick sense of humor. The movie is just plain fun to sit through, and that’s enough to gloss over quite a few flaws.

I know this movie’s already been written off as a box office failure (too many high-profile movies crowding each other out, alas). Even so, this is absolutely a movie worth seeing and we need Radio Silence to keep making movies for as long as they can keep churning out cinema of this caliber. And if Universal can keep on taking this approach to their horror and monster titles, so much the better. Check this out.


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