‘Abigail’ extracts clever horror from a plot to kidnap the wrong little girl

A dual attempt to breathe life into the vampire and haunted-house genres, “Abigail” could have been called “Don’t Tell Mom the Kid I’m Babysitting’s Dead.” The simple premise, however, turns into an effective little horror movie, a bit strained toward the end, but until then a clever and inventive take on six people literally just trying to make it through the night.

Of course, the child vampire has a well-established history, including the creepy Swedish film “Let the Right One In” and an American remake, “Let Me In.” Universal has also sought to continue wringing fresh blood out of its monster properties, giving rise to a mixed bag that includes “Renfield” and “The Last Voyage of the Demeter.”

“Abigail” owes perhaps a more pertinent debt to the “Scream” franchise, which happens to be under the creative stewardship of the directing team behind this movie, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, here working from a screenplay by Stephen Shields and Guy Busick. In addition, they’re reunited with “Scream” star Melissa Barrera, whose political comments prompted her split from that franchise, heading a cast that includes Angus Cloud, the late actor best known for “Euphoria.”

Barrera and Cloud are joined by Dan Stevens, Kathryn Newton, Kevin Durand and William Catlett as the team of nameless crooks thrown together to kidnap a 12-year-old girl, a ballerina given the code name Tiny Dancer, a.k.a. Abigail (Alisha Weir, who played another unusual kid – if a less bloodthirsty one – in Netflix’s “Matilda the Musical”).

Alisha Weir plays the title role in the horror movie "Abigail." - Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures
Alisha Weir plays the title role in the horror movie "Abigail." - Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures

The promised payoff from their handler (Giancarlo Esposito) is a $50-million ransom, to be extracted from the child’s wealthy father. All the sextet must do, they’re told, is keep the kid company for 24 hours in a secluded mansion without cellphones to avoid the temptation of making contact with the outside world.

Simple enough, until bad things start happening, making the group wonder first who the girl’s father might be, and subsequently how somebody seems to be picking them off in the goriest fashion possible.

Although there’s an obvious formula to this sort of fare, the filmmakers do their best to play with that, weaving in some pretty funny (and occasionally ominous) dialogue related to the absurdity of the whole situation. While that eventually leads to at least one wrinkle too many, by then “Abigail” has delivered enough of what audiences expect, plus a few surprises.

To the extent that’s accomplished without a whole lot of unnecessary exposition, or excessive rule-breaking in terms of understood parameters of vampire lore, the movie overcomes an idea that frankly looked hard-pressed to be stretched much beyond the two-minute coming attractions.

Chalk it up perhaps to modest expectations, but by that measure “Abigail” mostly makes the right steps, and by the time it’s over, that tiny dancer, and her captors, have had a busy day indeed.

“Abigail” premieres April 19 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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