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James Berardinelli review - *** out of ****

Note: This review contains spoilers for anyone who has not seen the Abigail trailer. If you have seen it, feel free to proceed…you have already been spoiled.

Abigail is the latest movie to tackle the difficulties associated with balancing the need to market a film with the desire to retain the integrity of a plotline twist. Those who have been exposed to the trailers, TV ads, and other publicity materials associated with Abigail are seeing a different movie than those who somehow avoided them and come to the theater with a blank slate. For the few members of the latter group, this starts out as a crime thriller before, roughly halfway through, the curtain is pulled back to reveal what’s really going on. Everyone else knows this is a vampire movie and spends the better part of 50 minutes waiting for the bloodsucker to bare her fangs.

Considering the film’s origins, the vampire aspect isn’t so much a twist as an inevitability. When it was first announced, this project was proposed as a re-imagination of the 1936 Universal horror movie, Dracula’s Daughter. During the scripting process, however, seemingly all ties were cut – the finished version of Abigail reveals almost no connection to Dracula’s Daughter (with the exception of the denouement).

Abigail opens with a crime – the snatching of a young ballerina, Abigail (Alisha Weir), by a team of six operatives whose aliases are (mostly) derived from the Rat Pack: leader Frank (Dan Stevens), medical expert Joey (Melissa Barrera), computer whiz Sammy (Kathryn Newton), ex-military operative Rickles (William Catlett), dim-but-strong Peter (Kevin Durand), and motormouth driver Dean (Angus Cloud). They are working for the shady character Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito), who promises them each a cut of the $50M ransom if they can keep the girl safe and quiet in a decrepit mansion for 24 hours. As we know from the trailer, Abigail is far from a harmless victim and quickly turns the tables on her captors, proving to be entirely capable of dismembering and dispatching them one-by-one, especially once the house is revealed as an inescapable trap.

It's easy to nitpick Abigail’s narrative. Parts don’t hold together well, there are significant plot holes, story elements violate just-established rules, and (in true horror movie fashion) characters sometimes make head-scratchingly stupid decisions. But, for those willing to overlook these often-familiar conventions, the movie is gorily diverting. There are some bloody scenes (Abigail delights in playing with her food) and displays that are intentionally amusing in their excess. Directors Matt Dettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (who previously helmed the fourth and fifth Scream sequels) maintain a light, flippant tone. One gag featuring onions is laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie starts out feeling a little Hitchcocky and ends up in Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell territory. The directors do a better job with the jokey and gory material than generating tension and suspense. As their lead, they co-opted Melissa Barrera from their Scream movies (neither she nor they will be continuing with the franchise following Scream 6), who does an adequate job as the most sympathetic of the criminals. Dan Stevens is cast against type as a nasty, arrogant S.O.B. Kathryn Newton, who recently dabbled with another legacy horror name (Lisa Frankenstein), is appealingly ditzy. But the scene-stealer is 14-year-old Alisha Weir (Matilda the Musical). Anyone in the cast could have been swapped out except her.

Although Jason Blum has nothing to do with Abigail, there’s a clear Blumhouse influence to the way this film was developed and mounted. It has the same intimate feel, limited scale, and reliance on practical effects. This is a haunted house movie, with the characters trapped in an enclosed setting and needing to find a way out as the clock tick-tocks and the monster lurks in the shadows. The ending satisfies in a variety of ways. As for the fashion in which the movie has been marketed… I can’t help but wish I had never seen a trailer because the construction of the storyline offers an added payoff to unspoiled viewers.