Abigail – An exciting new spin on classic vampire mythology

An avowed horror fan, Shields won early notice for his screenplay for The Hole in the Ground, a 2019 Sundance Film Festival entry. He was perusing the in-flight entertainment options on a flight from Dublin to Los Angeles when he hit upon the notion that would become Abigail. “I was thinking, I haven’t seen a good heist movie in a while,” Shields says. Reflecting on some of his favorite crime films—including Quentin Tarantino’s now-iconic 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs—Shields began mulling concepts for one of his own, and for fun, he decided to introduce a horror movie monster into the mix.

Stephen Shields

A vampire was a natural choice, as Shields always had a particular affinity for the fanged fiends in movies including Salem’s Lot, The Lost Boys and Fright Night. “The inspiration for me was just the love of the two genres that I liked watching,” Shields says.

Universal bought an early draft of the script. Excited by its potential, executives embarked on a search for producing partners who would spark to the screenplay’s unusual marriage of genres and the vicious vamp at its core. Topping the list was William Sherak, whose Project X Entertainment had produced Ready or Not and both of Radio Silence’s Scream films.

Since bursting onto the indie film scene with 2012’s found-footage anthology V/H/S,the moviemaking collective Radio Silence, comprising of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and producer Chad Villella, have enjoyed massive box-office success with such hits as Ready or Not, Scream and Scream VI.

Seamlessly marrying high tension with serious scares and bloody mayhem—along with a healthy dose of black humour—Radio Silence’s films have helped drive renewed interest in the genre, winning over a new generation of horror fans.

Sherak felt that with some key tweaks, Abigail would be something that Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett could really sink their teeth into. He wanted to ensure the kidnappers felt like grounded, fully realized people who just happen to find themselves in a truly inexplicable situation, a hallmark of every Radio Silence production.

Melissa Barrera as Joey in Abigail, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett. © 2024 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The latest addition to their outré oeuvre, Abigail, retains all the hallmarks of their best work while offering an exciting new spin on classic vampire mythology. It begins with a high-stakes heist, a dangerous mission that, if all goes according to plan, could net six strangers a staggering $50 million. They must infiltrate the well-appointed home of a reclusive kingpin who presides over a vast criminal empire. After sedating and abducting his pre-teen ballerina daughter, Abigail, they must safely transport the girl back to a remote mansion, then settle in to wait for the sun to rise and the cash to turn up. What the kidnappers don’t realize is that their cavernous hideout is, in fact, a petite predator’s playground, and she can’t wait to turn the tables on her assailants and exact violent retribution.

“We thought it was such a fun mashing up of different ideas,” says Bettinelli-Olpin. “It feels like a heist movie that’s really intimate and character-driven, and it gets hijacked by a vampire movie. We also thought that that character of Abigail, this little girl who you have a lot of sympathy for in the first half of the movie, when she becomes the villain, there’s hopefully some catharsis in that. You want to see her kick everyone’s ass.”

“What they’re just great at is allowing the first part of a movie to develop characters where you truly like them, know them and believe them as being real,” Sherak says. “Then when you put them in this extraordinary situation—taking real people with real problems in life and throwing a tween vampire at them—watching that unfold is where we find the fun.”

Children can be such monsters. After a group of would-be criminals kidnap the 12-year-old ballerina daughter of a powerful underworld figure, all they have to do to collect a $50 million ransom is watch the girl overnight. In an isolated mansion, the captors start to dwindle, one by one, and they discover, to their mounting horror, that they’re locked inside with no normal little girl. 

“The films that interest us are always the ones full of surprises and that, tonally, have an unexpected mashup of genres,” says director Tyler Gillett. “When we first read Abigail it was clear from the beginning that you had this tense heist movie colliding with a monster movie. Not only was that a kind of flavor we hadn’t seen before, but we’d also never really done a heist movie, so creatively, it was exciting for us to do our version of that specific genre and then slip into the monster gore fest we were more familiar with. That balance was one of biggest challenges and at the end of the day became the identity of Abigail.”

(from left, centered) Director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Alisha Weir and director Tyler Gillett with additional crew members on the set of Abigail. © 2024 Universal Studios

“The other thing that attracted us to the script was how unique the characters felt,” says director Bettinelli-Olpin. “And as the project moved on, I think it became even more important for us to figure out how to make them all stand out and have their own story. You could have told this story from each character’s point of view, and it still would be fun and interesting. So, I believe that something we always look forward to is that big genre hook and then seeing how we can make the characters cool and fun.”

Working from Shields’s drafts, screenwriter Guy Busick made the changes required for the film to feel like a true Radio Silence production. Having written all three of the team’s biggest hits, Busick was delighted to be reunited with the collective. “Matt, Tyler and Chad are wonderful filmmakers and wonderful human beings,” Busick says. “We have a creative shorthand that makes all our jobs much easier. We share the same sensibility and the same love of quirky, odd movies that really shouldn’t work but somehow do.”

Immediately hooked by the core concept of a crime movie colliding with a monster movie, Busick says he “watched every vampire movie I could think of.” That list included such landmarks as Universal’s 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, starring Gary Oldman. Tarantino’s 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn also provided inspiration, shifting as it does from gripping crime thriller to over-the-top vampire romp. “I’ll always remember going into that movie cold and being shocked and completely delighted at that turn,” Busick says.

Guy Busick

After brushing up on his vampire lore, Busick, along with the other filmmakers, set out to craft a bold new incarnation of the monster film, one with a fresh and frightening villain unlike any audiences had ever seen.

“Our goal was to make Abigail as strong and specific as possible, then add the monster window dressing,” Busick says. “The producers and Radio Silence and I had a blast figuring out which ‘traditional’ vampire powers and weaknesses she should have. Can she turn into a bat? No, but she can fly. Does garlic affect her? No, but sunlight does. We wanted her to be terrifying, intimidating, and manipulative whether her fangs were out or not.” Adds Gillett: “The aim for us from jump was telling a story in the lineage of our favorite vampire movies but giving it a spin that felt incredibly contemporary.”

Abigail (Alisha Weir) in Abigail.© 2024 Universal Studios

Assembling a top-flight ensemble cast for the film, Radio Silence headed to Ireland to shoot Abigail in the late spring and early summer of 2023. The historic Glenmaroon House, which sits on the outskirts of Dublin in the affluent suburb of Castleknock, doubled for Abigail’s Wilhelm Manor. In the film, the kidnappers are impressed by the home’s Neo Tudor façade and drawn in further by its grand entrance hall, but they come to discover that portions of the sprawling mansion are treacherous and poorly tended. Much like the movie’s villain, Wilhelm Manor is concealing dark and deadly secrets of its own. “There’s the public face of the house—and then the nether regions,” says location manager Eoin Holohan (The Banshees of Inisherin).

During production, it fell to Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett to balance the tension arising from the kidnappers’ personality clashes with the sheer horror that Abigail unleashes on them. Frequently, the directorial duo would gut-check themselves to ensure that Abigail would strike all the right notes in terms of tone; it was especially important to ensure the comedy never overwhelmed the horror.  

Their mission, always, was to deliver an unforgettable theatrical experience for genre fans, themselves included. “We always aim to entertain ourselves,” Bettinelli-Olpin says. “We try to make sure that every single scene not only functions on a story level, but also that it pushes the buttons we want to push in terms of entertainment. We want to make sure that it’s always fun, exciting, scary, emotional, so that when you get to the end of it, you have an overwhelming sense of having gone through something fun and exciting and scary and emotional, all in one package.”

Adds Gillett: “It’s really through horror movies that you get to do all those things in one story. There’s just nothing quite like the experience of being in a crowded theater, having a shared catharsis, being scared together, laughing together. What we want is for people to leave having had a great time.”

“We approach everything as if we’re putting on a show where you want to entertain,” says Bettinelli-Olpin. “When we’re in post-production, we ask ourselves, “All right, where are we guiding the audience now? And then how are we going to subvert that?” When you get a bunch of people together in a big dark movie theatre with a great sound system, there’s that communal feeling of, “We’re going on this adventure together. We’re going to get through this because it’s a movie. So, let’s go do this!” I know sometimes it’s used in a negative way, but it is like a roller coaster. Also, in a time where we’re more and more separated with heads down on our phones and all that, to have an opportunity to sit in a room and have a shared experience is just very special.”

Says Gillett: “Yeah, this genre belongs in the theater. I think there is a level of interactivity with the movie when we’re pulling those levers in the right way with people laughing and then being scared—which are public expressions. So, to be in a room where you see the contagious nature of that is definitely what Abigail was designed for. I think the fun of making scary movies in general for us is that it’s make-believe on the highest and craziest level and there’s a craftsmanship to it. There’s just a lot of weird, fun, tactile stuff that you get to do when you’re shooting a horror movie, and I believe we’re sort of obsessed with that process. We really love making them! Then, on an emotional level, it is so much fun to get to explore earnest emotional things under the veneer of this heightened, wacky, crazy world. For us, it’s about making the hard things in our lives a bit more palatable and being able to explore these dark corners of who we are in a way that is fun and cathartic. And at the end of the day, you leave the theater going, “Wow, I had a really great time! And I can actually have a conversation about some of the deeper, more emotional things going on in the movie.” If you want to enjoy it on a superficial level, you can and you certainly will, but there’s a lot happening under the hood. So, it’s about the balance of making a film about serious things that is not taking itself seriously at all. That is the sweet spot for us.”