I’m not sure I can fully explain to you how I feel about violence in movies, but I’ll try, beginning with an anecdote. Years ago, a very good film called Mad Max: Fury Road was released. Like all right-thinking people, I loved it. Brilliantly shot and edited, intelligently written, skillfully acted, all in service of a film that’s perfect for what it is.

Around that time, I reconnected with an old friend, whom I’ll call Todd. I suggested we catch Fury Road, then kick around our opinions. Off we went to the theater in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, to have our faces melted off by the mighty George Miller. Afterwards, at the parking lot, I’d said to Todd, “So? What did you think?” He paused, closed his eyes, sighed audibly. Then, and it was one of the most Boulder things I’ve ever heard, he replied, “I just think we can do so much better as a society.”

So, look…I’ve dined out a lot on that story. And yet, when I look at the movies I own and love, it occurs to me that the majority of them feature violence. Not only do they feature violence, but violence is literally the main attraction. On its face, is that fact a problem? Perhaps. When I tell you that I had a blast watching Abigail, a horror/comedy made with equally high amounts of quality and gore, is that also a problem? I don’t think so, but we’ll get to that.

When we first meet Abigail (Alisha Weir), she’s dancing. She’s a ballerina, a pretty good one as far as I can tell. She’s a kid, old enough to learn in earnest yet young enough to need to learn. She’s also rich. I mean, rich AF, and we know that because she’s practicing ballet alone in an empty concert hall.

As she dances, Abigail is being watched. By a team of…well, to call them “professionals” is a bit of a stretch, so let’s call them enthusiastic entrepreneurs. They are:

  • Joey (Melissa Barrera)
  • Frank (Dan Stevens)
  • Sammy (Kathryn Newton)
  • Peter (Kevin Durand)
  • Dean (Angus Cloud)
  • Rickles (William Catlett)

Their plan is relatively straightforward. Since Abigail comes from money, it stands to reason that someone would pay good money for her safe return. That’s the plan that Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) developed, and when the team breaks into Abigail’s home and kidnaps her, it seems as if the plan is going pretty well.

The team drugs her unconscious, piles into a nondescript van, and drives way out to a lonely mansion located at the ass-end of nowhere. They’ll babysit for twenty-four hours, collect the money, then release their captive and start new lives being filthy rich. Like I said, it’s a good plan, except for two minor details they missed. The first is that Abigail’s father is Lazar, a crime lord so feared that he would make Keyser Soze pee his pants. The second is that Abigail is a vampire, and she’s very thirsty.

I think two things can be true at the same time. The first thing is that Abigail whips unholy amounts of ass. It has its flaws, but while I was watching, I was having a great time. Yes, having a great time also included the copious gore, fountains of blood, shootings, stabbings, and frequently disrespectful language. The second thing is that, on its face, I don’t think massive violence is necessarily a problem. Certainly not to the point where I think it’s bad for society. Again, and hang tight for me, we’ll return to that idea in a moment.

Directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin are also known as Radio Silence, and they’ve expertly carved out space in the horror/comedy genre. Lots of horror/comedies tend to either be not funny enough or not scary enough. Radio Silence threads the needle nicely in terms of tone. The humor works well, and when a joke doesn’t land, another will be along momentarily that works better. As for the horror, we’re not talking Hereditary-scary. It’s more of the splatstick variety, much like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies. At times, the pacing drags just a little, yet I never felt like it was an enormous issue. 

The screenplay by Stephen Shields and Guy Busick does a nice job parceling out information early on, and our group of criminals gradually learns the truth of their situation. They don’t immediately jump to the conclusion of, “This kid must be a nosferatu!” Nor do they cling to the idea of, “But vampires aren’t real!” concept for too long. The characters are smart enough to adapt to the shifting scenario, which means that Shields and Busick have done more than write a jokey gorefest. They’ve thought about setpieces, escalating tension, and the most interesting and entertaining ways for the characters to deal with it all. That’s one of the hallmarks of strong screenwriting. 

I appreciate it when actors appear in genre films and understand the assignment. They know not to be slumming it, and also know the best ways to engage with the material. On the one hand, Dan Stevens goes broad enough to match the tone of the film. As Frank, he’s playing a guy who is, first and foremost, a criminal. He’ll fight when he needs to, flee when it makes sense, negotiate if he thinks he can get the upper hand, and screw over his crew should the need arise. Frank isn’t a villain, per se, he’s an entertaining alpha scumbag in a group of scumbags. The yang to Steves’ yin is Melissa Barrera’s Joey. First and foremost, she’s a professional. She’s smart, pays attention, and tries to think a few steps ahead whenever possible. Barrera does good work as a woman trying to deal with a truly bonkers situation. She’s the solid center around which a ton of insanity orbits.

Remember a while ago we talked about how massive violence isn’t really a problem? That’s because context and tone changes everything. The Passion of the Christ is one of the goriest films I’ve ever seen, and the gore exists to show the suffering Jesus experienced on our behalf. Similarly, Saving Private Ryan is a bloodbath. It needs to be, so that we can be reminded of the acts of incredible heroism performed on D-Day. “But wait,” I hear an Imaginary Commenter saying, “Those are serious movies. What about so-called fun movies? Aren’t those a problem?” They aren’t, because tone changes everything. Hostel features gore that’s excessive, but the gore is more of a focal point. The feeling you have watching something like Hostel is that the filmmaker wants you to luxuriate in the violence and suffering itself. The fountains of blood in Abigail, on the other hand, aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They’re a goof, and they exist on the same continuum as the Three Stooges poking each other in the eye.

Does that mean a movie like Hostel is “bad?” I don’t think so, it’s more that it’s a flavor of movie I don’t enjoy. I get that viewers have different sensibilities, and one person might be horrified by something like Abigail and another would have fun with it.* It all comes down to you, your specific predilections and preferences when it comes to art. For those who sniff that any depiction of violence is problematic, I’ll remind them that both the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible are insanely violent. We don’t ban them purely because of their respectives tones and context.** 

I might be someone of picayune tastes, happy enough to be entertained by a vampire stabbing a luckless schnook with his own crucifix. That may be true, and yet I feel confident in saying that Abigail is a film that’s intelligent and clever. Did I enjoy it? Hell, yes. Will Todd enjoy it? The jury is most definitely out on that one. Oh, and Todd? Maybe one of these days we can see another film that will create a substantive and positive dialogue. I’m thinking something along the lines of RoboCop.


*It’s not dissimilar to folks demanding the removal of certain books found in libraries, because they’re too violent, inappropriate, harmful to children, or “pornographic.” Having said all that, to the person who brought a small child to my screening of Abigail, I’d like to gently say, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

**Though every time I read about some self-righteous goofball accusing a book of being porn, I have to wonder if they understand what porn actually is.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.