‘Abigail’ Review: A Remake of ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Turns Into a Brutally Monotonous Genre Mashup

From the moment the film was announced a year ago, “Abigail” has been marketed as a remake of “Dracula’s Daughter,” the 1936 Universal Pictures curio. So it’s no spoiler to say that the title character of “Abigail” is…Dracula’s daughter. Yet if you went in not knowing that, it might be the only real surprise in the movie, apart from what a brutally monotonous blood-vomiting genre mashup it is.

For a while, we think we’re watching a standard kidnap thriller. It opens with Abigail (Alisha Weir), who is 12, on the ballet stage rehearsing “Swan Lake,” a most definite vampire homage, since Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous heart-swelling score is the same music that played over the opening credits of the 1931 Bela Lugosi “Dracula.” That lyrical entré ends in about three minutes, as the kidnappers, all overstated profane synthetic crudeness, jam themselves into a van and abscond with Abigail, who they take to a hideaway mansion and stash in one of the bedrooms.

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If the crime goes off as planned, each of them will get $7 million in ransom money. But with their fake names and bumptious bickering, which starts in scene one and rarely lets up, they’re like characters in a bargain-basement gloss on “The Desperate Hours” crossed with “Reservoir Dogs” crossed with the worst A24 house-party horror film you could imagine.

“Dracula’s Daughter,” made to cash in on the original “Dracula’s” success (though it had none of the same actors), was a rather stodgy London-fog monster movie starring Gloria Holden, who plays the title character like Greta Garbo as an aristocratic mesmerist. Yet the film has a cult dimension; there’s a scene with Holden and the woman she fastens on to model for a painting that has homoerotic overtones (at least, for 1936). I hadn’t seen the movie in decades, but it reminded me of something I’ve always liked about studio-system horror films — that there’s a dramatic lightness to them, even when they’re all about the darkness. Whereas “Abigail” is so heavy and excessive that if Sam Peckinpah saw it he might say, “Jesus! Tone it down.”

Abigail’s father, we learn early on, is Kristof Lazar (Matthew Goode), a demonically vicious and omnipotent underworld boss who has a way of slashing his enemies to ribbons. (He can get into places where there’s no explanation for it.) And Abigail, though she apparently doesn’t like her father very much, is a chip off the old ripper. Before long, she sprouts razory teeth and turns into a feral child, going at the kidnappers, one by one. She’s toying with them as a kind of game, and a few of them get turned into vampires (which has the remarkable effect of changing their personalities without making them any less boring). One or two…explode, sort of like John Cassavetes at the end of “The Fury” though with more splatter and less apocalyptic elegance.

As played by Dan Stevens, who italicizes everything, Frank, the leader of the gang (though even he’s just a thug for hire), is the most tedious. He’s an embattled yuppie nerd, testy and rancorous, and he never stops yelling. The other characters yell back. I make a point of this because there’s so much oppositional energy in “Abigail” that it tamps down our impulse to identify with anyone. Sammy (Kathryn Newton) the Catholic punk, Peter (Kevin Durand) the sullen hulk who’s like Elon Musk played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank the dick — these are characters who seem programmed to annoy us. Angus Cloud, in his final performance, plays Dean, who is blitzed but mellow, a real Cloud combination — you feel the presence that was lost. And Melissa Barrera, from “In the Heights” and the last two “Scream” films, grows more forceful as the movie goes on. She plays Joey, a druggie who is given a maudlin and ineffective backstory (about the son she abandoned), but she’s the one actor on hand who seems to understand the value of toning down the noise.

“Abigail” was directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who made those last two “Scream” films, and though I was impressed, to a degree, by what they brought off there, this movie feels like a step backward into overwrought generic schlock. Why does a vampire movie need to be so relentlessly physical, with whacked limbs and decapitations and bodies slammed into walls? Dracula, among other things, is the most metaphorical character in horror-film history, and I guess his daughter could be too, but not in a film that turns bloodsucking into a form of professional wrestling.

VIP+ Analysis: Can ‘Abigail’ Up Horror’s Theatrical Strength?

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