Credit: Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Genre Views

Abigail — Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

April 19, 2024

One of the great “what ifs?” for filmgoers of a certain age is the now somewhat faded-from-memory Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration From Dusk Till Dawn, and more specifically the circumstance of its 1996 theatrical release. A violent, knowingly pissy crime caper about two psychopaths on the run from the law taking a family of three hostage as cover for their escape across the border, the film plays like a more chatty Peckinpah film for an entire hour, until our characters settle in at a filthy Mexican strip club and discover [spoilers for a film from the Clinton administration] all its occupants are vampires. The entire film up to this point has been cleverly designed as misdirection, playing upon the audience’s familiarity with both Rodriguez and Tarantino’s bodies of work and, most importantly, it puts the time in; establishing the characters and the stakes before the proverbial shit hits the fan. Audiences must have flipped when Salma Hayek’s exotic dancer unexpectedly transformed into a bipedal serpent and buried her fangs in one of our protagonists’ neck… or would have if the trailers and TV spots hadn’t been built around giving away the twist as comprehensively as possible. But, then, market research claims viewers have come to expect that every plot development be spelled out for them before they decide whether to go to the movies and we can’t very well let an expertly disguised reveal stand in the way of opening weekend tracking numbers.

The new film Abigail from the directing team of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (of the two most recent installments of the Scream franchise) draws considerable inspiration from From Dusk Till Dawn, extending to the film’s own marketing campaign which similarly gives away the genre-upending rug pull that arrives 40 forty minutes into the film. Prior to this, it too is about a group of loquacious criminals who have kidnapped a pre-teen girl (Irish actress Alisha Weir, in the title role) with the intention of ransoming her back to her wealthy father for $50 million. The team of kidnappers are all strangers to one another and have been assembled by oily ringleader Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) and instructed to stash the girl in a dilapidated estate in the suburbs of Massachusetts for 24 hours, until they can collect the ransom. In a nod to a different Tarantino film, Reservoir Dogs, the kidnappers all use aliases: everyone goes by the name of a Rat Pack member, an initially cute idea the film belabors. There’s final girl in waiting Joey (Melissa Barrera), testy professional criminal Frank (Dan Stevens), space cadet getaway driver Dean (the late Angus Cloud, in his final role), affable French-Canadian muscle-for-hire Peter (Kevin Durand), bored suburbanite-turned-tattooed-hacker Sammy (Kathryn Newton), and stoic ex-Marine Rickles (William Catlett). Relieved of their cell phones and instructed to keep their distance from the girl — who’s been drugged and chained to a bed upstairs — our six characters sit around, get drunk, and play parlor games to kill time while trying to learn more about one another. But it’s a creaky old house decorated with macabre antiquities and hunting trophies, and it remains a subject of much debate as to who the girl’s mysterious father is (including, potentially, a terrifying underworld figure). When a member of the crew is discovered with their head ripped from their body, the remaining characters are forced to contemplate whether one of them is a murderer or if perhaps they’re not as alone in the house as they believe.

At this point, the “responsible” thing to do would be to play coy about the nature of Abigail, pretending there’s a world where anyone who seeks this out doesn’t know exactly what kind of a film they’ve signed up for (even the film’s title treatment offers a not-so-subtle nods to teeth). Let’s humor that for now and simply say that the girl isn’t as helpless as she appears and there’s a pretty good reason the doors and windows are fortified with iron gates and sturdy wooden shutters. Locked inside, unable to call for help and in an unfamiliar setting with disgusting surprises waiting around every corner, the characters go through the motions of a rather bloody take on And Then There Were None (another instance of the film butting up against a fun idea only to obnoxiously underline it lest anyone miss the reference). All the while, Abigail taunts her erstwhile captors, spending large chunks of the film dancing to and fro in a tutu and ballet slippers accompanied by a moody rendition of Swan Lake. Whatever her supernatural qualities, Abigail’s greatest gift is her ability to manipulate people, turning the film’s characters against one another seemingly just for sport.

Alas, it’s not a very fair fight. The characters in Abigail may not realize at first that they’re starring in a horror film, but you couldn’t tell from their behavior. Starting with everyone (except recovering junkie Joey) immediately getting three sheets to the wind, these well-paid, would-be professionals begin peeling off to explore the darkened corners of the house on their own, bicker incessantly about utter nonsense, and play pranks on one another like jumping out from the shadows (not advisable considering how everyone’s already on edge and packing heat). There are only a handful of surprises in Abigail (and again, the largest one is effectively its logline), so the execution of everything in between actually matters. And it’s on this front that the film is especially wanting. The screenplay by Stephen Shields and Guy Busick is weighted down by numerous long-winded, expository sequences where characters stand around and tell (or have relayed back to them) their tortured, thoroughly rote backstories which the film primarily uses to turn our sympathies toward or away from different individuals. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett seem to be self-consciously returning to the scene of their greatest success, the sleeper hit Ready or Not, what with its laborious mythology, gothic production design, self-contained location, and the special effect of bodies repeatedly exploding into goopy, red mist (the motif of characters being covered head to toe in blood gets a bit done to death here). However, everything Ready or Not did modestly well, Abigail absolutely whiffs. The film’s spatial geography is needlessly confusing — it’s rarely clear where any two characters are in relation to each other in the house — and the film is incapable of settling on a consistent tone. Is this meant to be a black comedy? Straight horror? Camp? A touchy-feely drama about being a better parent?

And then there’s Abigail herself. Weir gives an amusingly self-assured performance, holding her own against her more experienced costars while embracing the physicality of the character (if the young actress isn’t a trained dancer, the film fakes it well). But there’s little novelty at this point in a quippy middle-schooler in the role of cold-blooded killer — I’ll see your Orphan and raise you one M3gan — and, further, the film can’t decide whether the character is meant to be a classic movie monster, wounded bird, or conflicted anti-hero. Instead, what Abigail is most comfortable doing is teeing up memes built around the main character’s bitchy, pint-sized mean girl schtick. We’ll never know how this might have played if the film’s second act reveal wasn’t dropped onto unsuspecting audiences months in advance, but we’re probably only a few weeks away from this being clipped into a series of studio-sanctioned GIFs where Abigail is flashing a face full of razor-sharp teeth, doing this year’s variation on the Wednesday Addams dance, and spitting out a bitchy burn where such things can be consumed in their ideal form: divorced of all context and punctuating dishy text threads and ironic social media posts.

DIRECTOR: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett;  CAST: Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Alisha Weir, Kathryn Newton;  DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures;  IN THEATERS: April 19;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 49 min.