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Radio Silence brings maximalist style to vampire flick ‘Abigail’

Katie Walsh – Tribune News Service (TNS)

The filmmaking team known as Radio Silence, made up of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and producer Chad Villella, struck black (comedy) gold with their 2019 horror thriller “Ready or Not,” about a young bride, played by Samara Weaving, who has to battle her way out of a murderous game hosted by her wealthy soon-to-be in-laws. The film demonstrated their mastery of coupling an irreverent tone with splashy violence, and netted the team the responsibility of making the next two “Scream” movies, the first without Wes Craven behind the camera.

With their latest feature “Abigail,” Universal gets into the Radio Silence business, hoping that their brand of female-driven horror can pay big dividends at the box office (and birth a franchise?). With a script by Stephen Shields and Guy Busick, who co-wrote “Ready or Not,” Radio Silence have delivered what is essentially a spiritual sequel to their breakout hit, this time with vampires rather than superstitious old-money sadists, and starring “Scream” queen Melissa Barrera.

Once again, the setting is an old creepy mansion filled with taxidermy and firelight. Once again our heroine is a steely, scrappy young woman who has a single vice — Weaving’s Grace had a penchant for cigarettes; Barrera’s Joey gobbles hard candy. Once again, a group has been assembled in this isolated location and given a task to be completed within a set amount of time.

In “Abigail,” the group is a band of sarcastic kidnappers, a team of strangers who have been hired to snatch and then guard Abigail (Alisha Weir), the 12-year-old daughter of a rich and powerful man. Their boss, Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) gives them nicknames for anonymity — “Joey,” “Frank” (Dan Stevens), “Sammy” (Kathryn Newton), “Dean” (Angus Cloud), “Peter” (Kevin Durand) and “Don Rickles” (Will Catlett) — then bids goodbye to his “pack of rats.” They assume they’ll drink the night away with their hostage in the other room and collect their fee, but innocent Abigail is much, much more than meets the eye. She mournfully informs her keeper Joey that she’s sorry for what’s about to happen to them.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know that tiny ballerina Abigail is a ferociously terrifying vampire who starts to hunt and feast on each kidnapper. “I like to play with my food,” she taunts, baring rows of sharpened, yellowed teeth. Weir, who starred in “Matilda: The Musical,” cheerfully chomps into this role, which requires a tremendous physicality, blending ballet and brutal brawls, and she’s riveting, but also quite funny. There’s a grand tradition of terrible little girls in horror, from “The Bad Seed” to “The Exorcist,” and we can easily add “Abigail” to that canon.

The rest of the ensemble also capably pirouettes from jokes to terror, led by Stevens, sporting aviators and a Queens accent as the shifty, untrustworthy Frank. Newton has appeared in her fair share of horror flicks, always flirting with the monstrous side. Durand leans into his French Canadian roots playing a Quebecois muscle man who’s more brawn than brains. But Barrera holds the center as the savvy Joey whose rare vulnerability is her sympathy for kids.

There’s a parent-child theme that doesn’t so much as simmer below the surface as it drives the plot along, both Abigail and Joey finding something in each other that they lack. There’s not much subtext, everything remains on the surface, and the exceptionally wordy script relies on exposition dumps to inform the audience about rumors, twists, deals and double-crosses. The characters chatter and prattle about vampire lore and Anne Rice, “True Blood,” “Twilight” and “Nosferatu.”

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have a gleefully maximalist horror style; blood is dark and sticky, it doesn’t just spurt, it geysers, projects and splatters. Bodies burst like water balloons under pressure, goopy viscera raining from wall to wall. It’s uniquely them, but they pay homage to the greats: Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark,” the leaping vampires of “Blade” and an oblique script reference to the 1936 film “Dracula’s Daughter,” which offers a layered double meaning to the film.

“Abigail” is at times a bit too flippant, over the top and even protracted in its ridiculous Grand Guignol of exploding “meat sacks,” but it’s very much in line with the unique Radio Silence sensibility, which is en vogue with audiences right now.

The highlight of these films, from “Ready or Not” to “Scream” to “Abigail,” is their ability to tap into an emotional zeitgeist via their working class heroines, who capture the mood of the moment. Like Grace, and Barrera’s character Sam in “Scream,” Joey is weary and hardened by the world, but determined to survive, to make it through the day. Bloodied and battered, she manages to find a shred of solace in this godforsaken world, and that makes her the kind of final girl we can believe in.



2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for strong bloody violence and gore throughout, pervasive language and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:49

How to watch: In theaters Friday


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