See more of the story

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 who has to battle her way out of a murderous game hosted by her 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.

In their latest feature "Abigail," Universal gets into the Radio Silence business, hoping that the brand of female-driven horror can pay big dividends at the box office and maybe birth a franchise. With a script by Stephen Shields and Guy Busick, who co-wrote "Ready or Not," Radio Silence has delivered what is essentially a spiritual sequel to the 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 — 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.

A band of sarcastic kidnappers are hired to snatch Abigail (Alisha Weir), the 12-year-old daughter of a rich and powerful man. Their boss, Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) gives the criminals nicknames for anonymity, then bids goodbye to his "pack of rats." They assume they'll drink the night away and collect their fee, but innocent Abigail is much, much more than meets the eye. She mournfully informs her keeper Joey (Barrera) 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 tremendous physicality, blending ballet and brutal brawls, and she's riveting, but also quite funny.

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

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. 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. Joey is weary and hardened by the world, but determined to survive. 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

Rated: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and brief drug use.

Where: In theaters Friday.