Released Apr. 17, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 26min
Directed by Akiva Goldsman
Starring Shree Crooks, Frank Grillo, Anna Torv
In the midst of an unknown global epidemic, young Stephanie (Crooks) is alone in her home, fending for herself while eluding mysterious paranormal and monstrous entities. When her parents (Grillo & Torv) unexpectedly return, the joyous reunion quickly sours, as nothing and no one are quite as they seem.
It has all the gloss and polish one would come to expect from a Blumhouse film. Despite the shiny machine-crafted appearance, Stephanie has genuine tension and surprises in store, offering up a fusion of A Quiet Place (which was released a mere 11 days earlier) with a kiddie I Am Legend, along with a few other comparisons that I’ll refrain from mentioning – no spoilers.
Jason Blum has certainly put up the money for a lot of horror projects in the last 3 years – something like 30 movie and television titles. His love for the genre is quite obvious at this point, as he has proven to be one of the premier architects of what might currently be a new Golden Age for horror on the screen. That being said though, he is also a manager of money and marketing, and it seems that, with Stephanie, he didn’t see what he wanted to see – perhaps the premise and product were considered too difficult to sell. The film was doubtlessly made for a theatrical run, but it would never get that big screen release, instead getting a quiet VOD treatment before being nonchalantly plopped into the Netflix library with little fanfare. It’s a shame it didn’t get the attention it deserved, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case much longer. Like numerous titles before it, it’ll find a second life on video.
As it begins, we are introduced to young Stephanie, calmly – and somewhat clumsily – making her way through a daily routine. There’s not much indication as to why she’s alone, how long she’s been alone, or why she seems stocked with provisions, but hints are dropped to something big and very disruptive occurring in the world around her, and it may have something to do with the amorphous monster that roams the property at night. Played by Shree Crooks, this is a lot of movie to put on the shoulders of such a young actress, but she pulls it off well, reminiscent of Kevin McAllister in Home Alone, minus the comedic whimsy. Besieged within the boundaries of her yard (along with some other complications that will go unlisted), it’s clear that our grade-school heroine will not be able to indefinitely survive a situation which is more bleak than she is able to comprehend. That is, until her parents – played well by Frank Grillo and Anna Torv, both of whom I’d like to see in more roles – abruptly return home. Despite her happiness and relief, they’re curiously short on explanations for their absence and they don’t look at her quite right when her back is turned. Something is assuredly wrong, and it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The pacing in Stephanie is fantastic. Each scene provides at least one new complication or revelation, posing new questions and succinctly raising the dramatic stakes and tension along an impressively smooth arc. Almost no detail is wasted upon the grand reveals of the film’s final act, as everything converges into an epic finish. Ben Collins and Luke Piotrpwski, the screen-writing duo behind the highly regarded thriller Super Dark Times, penned a script here that could be considered meticulously crafted. It probably only helped that the film is directed by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, so the pedigree behind the narrative is top notch. The direction style, however, as mentioned before, is very Blumhouse-style, with an emphasis on a mainstream mass-market approach. Having not received that mainstream treatment, it will forever remain a wonder what the movie could have been with a bolder approach.
That’s because Stephanie is not entirely without its flaws. While used somewhat sparingly, the familiar jump scare formula is in play here – cue the staccato violins, fake out, silence, then ALL THE NOISE IN THE WORLD INTO YOUR EARS ALL AT ONCE OMG ARE YOU SCARED?!?!?! It’s formulaic but produces a result, so that’s why it’s part and parcel of mainstream horror. I find it irritating, but it’s not for the deep genre fans – it’s for the crowds. Speaking of, there’s a point in the film, about ten minutes from the end, that would have made an absolute jawdropper of an ending, but again, out of consideration for that mass market, it would have just been too great an emotional wallop and financial risk. Instead, we continue along to that aforementioned epic finish where, unfortunately, we arrive into the territory of the absurd. The movie isn’t ruined, by any means, but I like to explain explicitly why something isn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, even when it’s still quite good. And here, instead of being one of the best of the year, it’s simply among the better ones – that’s a pretty strong recommend, and more so for something that has gotten so little love so far.