Inventing Abigail

Universal Pictures Reimagines an Old Property in a Balletic Bloodbath

The following contains spoilers for Abigail (2024), The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023), and The Invisible Man (2020).

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the directing duo of the filmmaking collective Radio Silence, give Universal Pictures a new monster to add to its longstanding horror repertoire: a centuries-old vampire who takes the form of a twelve-year-old ballerina named Abigail (Alisha Weir).

Universal’s stable of monsters has included Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man, but Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s model was more likely the eponymous dancing doll in Universal’s campy horror hit M3GAN (dir. Gerard Johnstone, 2022). After all, these are the directors who made Ready or Not (2019), Scream (2022), and Scream VI (2023), and whose self-conscious horror brand drips with a blood-drenched irony that’s about as subtle as an exploding body (yes, bodies literally explode in Abigail!).

A ballerina dances with a headless corpse.
Vampire-ballerina Abigail dances with one of her beheaded victims. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Scream queens Melissa Barrera (from Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s Scream films) and Kathryn Newton (from the horror-comedies Freaky [dir. Christopher Landon, 2020] and Lisa Frankenstein [dir. Zelda Williams, 2024]) are the nominal stars, but Weir carriers the show on her diminutive shoulders as the abducted daughter of a mysterious power broker in the New York City underworld. Anyone who has seen the film’s trailer will not be shocked by the second-act revelation that Abigail turns out to be a vampire, rendering the long exposition superfluous, as Film Obsessive’s Aqib Rasheed notes in an otherwise favorable review. The advertising makes no bones about what an unhinged movie this is: a kidnapper (Giancarlo Esposito) hires a team of mercenaries to abduct Abigail and hold her hostage for a twenty-four-hour period in an old, dark house upstate. While he awaits the ransom from her father, Abigail—immune to traditional vampire repellent like garlic and Christian crosses—gets back at her captors in Grand Guignol fashion.

A brunette woman stands pensively
Melissa Barrera as Joey. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As formulaic as it is, Abigail works best when it focuses less on the social dynamics of the human characters and more on the suspenseful, often absurd set pieces, in which Abigail gruesomely dispatches them one by one. This ill-fated team includes former Army field medic Joey (Barrera), rich-kid hacker Sammy (Newton), volatile ex-cop Frank (Dan Stevens), veteran Marine-sniper Rickles (Will Catlett), dimwitted mob-goon Peter (Kevin Durand), and getaway driver Dean (the late Angus Cloud, to whom the film is dedicated), all pseudonymously christened after the members of the Rat Pack. But “Ocean’s Eleven” they are not. If Abigail hadn’t gotten there first, they would be at each other’s throats.

A vampire-ballerina glowers.
Alisha Weir as Abigail. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

What the trailers don’t reveal is the twist ending, that Abigail is not just any vampire-ballerina, but Dracula’s daughter. Here, Dracula is played by British actor Matthew Goode, and while the other characters refer to him by his underworld alias, “Lazar,” the film’s credits identify him simply as “Father.” The implication, however, is clear. Abigail is a defacto remake of Dracula’s Daughter (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1936), Universal’s direct sequel to Dracula (dir. Tod Browning, 1931). Was the name of Giancarlo Esposito’s character, Lambert, an homage to Lambert Hillyer? Monster-movie buffs will recall that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme, to which Abigail dances in the opening sequence, also plays over the opening credits of Dracula (and can later be heard in the London theater when the Count first meets Mina).

Any ties between Abigail and Universal’s Dracula films from the 1930s go no further. Dracula’s Daughter stars Gloria Holden in the title role as Marya Zaleska, who is not a child, but a full-grown woman. Zaleska is not a kidnapped ballet dancer living in New York, but a Countess from Transylvania. She comes to London to claim her father’s staked body and begins seeing a psychiatrist (Otto Kruger), a former student of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his role from Dracula), to understand her…unconventional appetites. Often read as a thinly veiled allegory for subversive and taboo lesbian desire, the film is a classic of pre-Stonewall queer cinema. By contrast, Abigail is less “about” the monster than final-girl Joey (Barrera) and her redemption as a recovering morphine addict. She only wants to collect her share of the money so she can reunite with her son, about Abigail’s age, whom she abandoned. Incidentally, Dracula star Bela Lugosi also suffered from a morphine addiction.

A woman gazes offscreen.
Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) gazes upon her prey in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
A child-vampire bears her fangs.
Abigail shows her teeth. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Publicity for Abigail managed to keep its origins in Dracula’s Daughter mostly under wraps. In April of 2023, Deadline Hollywood announced that Radio Silence had once again teamed up with Project X Entertainment (which made Scream ’22 and Scream VI for Paramount), but this time had “signed on to an untitled monster thriller at Universal Pictures,” written by Stephen Shields and revised by Guy Busick. This “secret monster movie” promised to offer “a unique take on legendary monster lore and will represent a fresh, new direction for how to celebrate classic characters.” Following Universal’s cancellation of its “Dark Universe” franchise, a would-be reboot of its classic monster series set in a shared story-world, the filmmakers reportedly intended to continue the trend that began with Universal’s The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell, 2020) and Renfield (dir. Chris McKay, 2023). As Deadline Hollywood put it:

“Universal monster films are rooted in the horror genre, with no restrictions on budget, rating or genre. They are not part of a shared interconnected universe, which allows each film to stand on its own. This new direction is filmmaker-driven, inviting those with original, bold ideas to develop stories and pitch them.”

Since opening last month in 3,300 theaters across North America, Abigail has garnered positive reviews and out-performed Universal’s last two Dracula-based films, the black comedy Renfield ($26.9 million against a $65 million budget) and the period-horror film The Last Voyage of the Demeter (dir. André Øvredal, 2023; $21.8 million against a $45 million budget). Although its opening-weekend gross of $10.2 million fell shy of its projected $12-to-$15-million intake at the box-office, placing it second behind A24’s Civil War (dir. Alex Garland), Abigail has gone on to gross upwards of $34 million at the time of this article’s writing, surpassing its modest $28-million budget.

Of course, it’s too early to tell what accounts for Abigail’s warmer reception and to what degree it might serve as a predictor for the future of the Universal’s monster movies. Next up is a Christopher Abbott-led remake of The Wolf Man (dir. George Waggner, 1941) from producer Jason Blum and Invisible Man director Leigh Whannell, scheduled for release in January of next year. Yet another version of Dracula, written and directed by Chloé Zhao, is still in development. Beyond Universal, Guillermo del Toro is adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) for Netflix with Jacob Elordi as the Creature, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is directing The Bride with Christian Bale and Jessie Buckley as the Creature and his mate, respectively. Universal’s plans to remake The Bride of Frankenstein [dir. James Whale, 1935] with Angelina Jolie fell through, and the property has since changed hands from Netflix to Warner Bros. Apparently, none of these films will be saving their classic monsters for a last-minute surprise.

A blonde woman looks nervous
Kathryn Newton as Sammy. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Dracula’s rather gimmicky and anticlimactic cameo appearance, confirming Abigail’s distinguished parentage, is the most glaring example of a pattern that has emerged in the recent films featuring the Universal Classic Monsters: the cliffhanger ending. By far the strongest film of the bunch, The Invisible Man not only ends with the monster vanquished by the survivor of his abuse, but also with her theft of his invisibility suit, leaving open the possibility of its continued uses. It’s reminiscent of the way the invisibility formula in Universal’s Invisible Man films of the 1940s passed from one invisible character to the next. Much more open ended is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which shows that the doctor aboard the doomed merchant ship actually made it to shores of London and has begun tracking the beast that massacred the crew. Given how cliffhanger endings often function as sequel bait, this pattern is not totally unexpected.

In Abigail, we learn that Lambert actually works for Abigail and that she has orchestrated her own abduction to trap her would-be kidnappers in her father’s deserted mansion, a “Rat Pack” in the proverbial maze. Each of the mercenaries has transgressed Lazar in one way or another and Abigail’s revenge plot was ultimately an attempt to win her father’s love and approval (the paralleling of Dracula with Joey as absent parents is admittedly a little too hurried and narratively convenient). Even if Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett “haven’t really given much thought” to a sequel, as they told SyFy Wire, reuniting Dracula with his estranged daughter—and letting them both live to terrorize another day—allows the filmmakers to have it both ways. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are able to tell a stand-alone story, but one that is primed for sequelization, should the market demand it.

Yet, by insistently disavowing the shared-universe paradigm of franchise storytelling and implicitly making claims to greater artistic integrity (a “filmmaker-driven” philosophy), Universal verges on something potentially riskier. Instead of a distinctive, coherent style, we have what sounds like artistic freedom as a brand identity, with little quality control and a huge margin for economic failure (“original, bold ideas,” “no restrictions on budget, rating or genre”). When there’s a glut of high-concept films made by different filmmakers with heterogeneous styles targeting various demographics, but derived from the same intellectual properties, some films will truly stand alone as self-contained works, while some will inevitably be followed by sequels. This creates the unwieldy situation of a shared story-world that exists for some films and not others. In the absence of sequels, endings like the one in Abagail are left hanging, slightly unsatisfying.

Recall that even if they predate the franchise era as we understand it today, the Universal monster movies of the classic era did share the same story-world. Frankenstein’s Creature and Larry Talbot (a.k.a., the Wolf Man) came to blows in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (dir. Roy William Neill, 1943), and crossed paths with Dracula in House of Frankenstein (dir. Erle C. Kenton, 1944) and House of Dracula (dir. Erle C. Kenton, 1945). What the directors of these films may have lacked in a signature aesthetic, they made up for in a workmanlike efficiency and economy following the house style of Universal horror at the time. Cancelling the “Dark Universe” was almost certainly a wise decision on both artistic and financial grounds, if The Mummy (dir. Alex Kurtzman, 2017) was any indication. However, there is the fear that the studio has lost sight of what made its old horror films entertaining in the first place: the recurring presence of the same monsters, loosely connected, in familiar, eminently recyclable settings. It wasn’t singularity and variation, but continuity and repetition.

Abigail is currently available via Premium VOD (Video on Demand) and Premium EST (Electronic Sell Through) services.

Written by Will Scheibel

Will Scheibel is a film critic and historian based in Syracuse, New York, where he holds an academic appointment at Syracuse University as Professor of Film and Screen Studies in the Department of English, and serves as Chair of the department. He is the author of GENE TIERNEY: STAR OF HOLLYWOOD'S HOME FRONT (Wayne State University Press, 2022) and is currently writing a book on Universal Pictures monster movies.

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