Like killer clowns and antique dolls, horror fans can’t seem to get enough of creepy kids. Just last week, the Children of the Corn franchise spit out yet another sequel onto Blu-ray. Personally, I have never found children to be particularly scary, just mildly headache-inducing.
Nevertheless, the horror machinery at Blumhouse Productions has a new offering this week on VOD and streaming platforms – Akiva Goldsman’s Stephanie. With a strong cast and interesting premise, Stephanie has generated some small buzz in horror circles and offered fans a potentially good film after a few weeks of duds.
At the opening of Stephanie, audiences are introduced to the title character, a young girl living alone in her family home. Sparse information in the way of newspaper clippings and snippets of television news coverage hint at a larger global disaster. Stephanie’s parents are either dead or abandoned her; a stuffed toy named Franklin is her only companion. Outside her home, lurking somewhere in a surrounding orchard, is an unseen presence that watches her and the house, putting Stephanie in constant danger.
An Effective Mystery with Good, Low-Key Scares
…Stephanie works a bit like a puzzle that simultaneously challenges and engages.
To say much more about Stephanie’s plot would be a disservice. Much of the joy in watching Stephanie is the intrigue that slowly builds as the director Akiva Goldsman drops little hints here and there. It was refreshing to watch a horror film that had me guessing for its first 40 or 45 minutes as one question was quickly replaced by a new one. In this sense, Stephanie works a bit like a puzzle that simultaneously challenges and engages.
The film marks Goldsman’s debut directorial effort in a feature-length film and it’s an impressive introduction. There are several moments that offer the kind of genuine suspense and tension that puts a viewer on the edge of their seat. Simple moments and tasks are given a sinister tone. Watching the young Stephanie trying to make herself a smoothie with a blender was particularly grueling. Stephanie’s pacing is also quite good with its quieter moments punctuated with elements of mystery or frights. Lights flicker, lightning flashes, and figures momentarily appear in the background. While they may be familiar horror film tropes, Goldsman employs them effectively and doesn’t allow them to overpower atmosphere and mood.
Stellar Acting Performances
While Stephanie hints at global disaster, it’s a small-scale film that is anchored by a small cast. Fortunately, the small cast delivers uniformly stellar performances. Child actor Shree Crooks, who plays the title character, is on screen alone for the first third of the film. Her performance is simply amazing, and not just for a child actor. She displays a full range of emotions that keeps the viewer engaged for the relatively quiet, subdued first third of the film. In one amusing scene, she displays naive, childlike enthusiasm when she lets a curse word slip out, then realizing she’s alone, yells out several ‘bad’ words aloud. Moments later, Crooks conveys the fear and loneliness a child should feel alone in the dark. It’s a truly amazing performance for the young actor.
Frank Grillo (The Purge: Election Day) and Anna Torv (Fringe), as Stephanie’s parents, are both excellent as well. Grillo is tasked with playing a father desperate to protect his daughter while knowing deep down he may fail. Whether it’s through his dialogue delivery or pained facial expressions, Grillo is utterly convincing. As the mother, Torv is equally convincing in her understated performance. More cold and focused initially than Grillo’s father, Torv slowly allows a mother’s pain and grief to seep out as the film unfolds.
A Little Cribbing in the Story
Where Stephanie falters a little is in the storyline twist that emerges in the film’s second half. Twilight Zone fans may recognize the swerve before it’s finally delivered as it cribs a little on a classic episode. The screenplay, written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, certainly adapts the premise and injects enough fresh ideas to allow Stephanie to avoid feeling like a rehash. In addition, both the screenplay and Goldsman’s direction keep the first half of Stephanie taunt and immersive for audiences, thus allowing the film to avoid feeling like an extended Black Mirror episode.
Like other horror films, Stephanie also suffers a little from extending its ending and tacking on what feels like a ‘second’ ending that was wholly unnecessary. Goldsman gives audiences an initially perfect conclusion to the film that is emotionally resonant and heartbreaking. This ‘first’ ending also works better with the film’s smaller scale human drama. But Goldsman gives in to the need for a flashier conclusion and while this extended ‘second’ ending delivers some fun visuals and an equally bleak vision, it can’t help but undermine the emotions of what proceeded it.
Another Hidden Gem from Blumhouse Productions
Despite a few complaints, Stephanie definitely qualifies as a hidden gem from our friends at Blumhouse Productions. It’s a much better film than Truth or Dare, which had a wide theatrical release earlier this spring. From the stellar performances to the heartbreaking mystery at its core, Stephanie deliver the kind of horror film that delivers beyond its scares.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+