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Universal’s Doing Its Monsters the Right Way

Just before the weekend, Universal finally pulled back the curtain on its cryptic horror movie from filmmaking duo Radio Silence. The resulting film is Abigail, which sees Melissa Barrera and Dan Stevens headline a team of kidnappers who snatch up a kid to hold her for ransom. The twist? The titular Abigail, played by Alisha Weir, is actually a vampire, and now they’re all completely screwed.

Making the monster a 12-year-old girl is a neat little twist, and the film seems to know how much fun it can have with this premise. It’s not every day that a kid in a horror movie gets to let loose and be a little freak whose murderous tendencies are a feature rather than a bug. She dances with a headless corpse at one point and clearly enjoys the opportunity to mess with these people using her to make a quick buck. And it’s fun to see the criminals immediately understand they’ll have to kill a kid if it means they get to survive the night. Not every movie can have Dan Stevens shoot a 12-year-old in the head, but this one does, and makes no apologies for it.

Abigail follows 2020’s The Invisible Man and last year’s Renfield and The Last Voyage of the Demeter, all modern spins on iconic monsters Universal held semi-dominion over with its Universal Monsters series. After the release and immediate collapse of its Dark Universe attempt with the 2017 Mummy reboot, Universal put the Monsters to bed for a few years. Then came Leigh Whannell’s Invisible Man reboot, which decided to update the property by centering it on an abuse survivor whose ex was stalking her with a fancy tech suit. That angle gave a considerably darker edge to the “monster” part of the Universal branding and in turn made it all the more satisfying when he eventually got what was coming to him.

Image: Universal

Conversely, Demeter isn’t modern, and is in fact based directly on a chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. But it’s playing in a similar space of having fun with an established horror character. Its Dracula is a petty jerk taking his time going through the crew of the titular ship. He’s got no qualms about chowing down on kids, and he clearly enjoys getting the chance to harass Corey Hawkins’ lone surviving character in potential sequels. It’s a shame those will will never come, because Dracula skulking around in London would’ve provided ample opportunity to play up the pettier aspects of the character directed mainly at Hawkins in the climax. And while I’ve yet to see Renfield, it was hard to not know that it was a vehicle for Nicholas Cage to ham it up as Drac, but also examine the character through the eyes of his long-suffering manservant, who finally decides that he wants to try and have an existence outside of his master.

The lack of franchise obligations have given Universal a new lease on life with these characters. Instead, the approach seems to be similar to how it and Blumhouse handle things like M3GAN and Halloween: make them scary, or i in Renfield’s case, try to make them fun. While Universal would certainly like some of these to have a sequel or two, the studio’s not breaking its back trying to force that into happening. And that’s ultimately how it should be: Demeter underperformed, but that didn’t impact anything, and it’s remembered as a solid flick that deserved more eyes on it. It didn’t hit M3GAN levels of virality, but its status as the “Dracula on a Boat” movie helped it stand out from other incarnations of the character that have been around in the last decade.

With luck, Abigail won’t try to establish itself as being in the same world as Whannell’s upcoming Wolf Man reboot or a new Invisible person. It looks like it’s able to stand on its own two vampiric feet without teasing any future guest stars. And honestly, could they really even match the same gonzo energy as a preteen doing pirouettes before she bites off someone’s throat?

Abigail releases in theaters on April 19.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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