The horror genre often derives much of its appeal from playing into expectations and generating visceral terror at the same time. That’s certainly the case with “Stephanie,” a more-than-competent entry in the creepy kid subgenre that doesn’t break new ground but manages to find its footing anyway. Directed on a microbudget scale by “A Beautiful Mind” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the movie never crystalizes into the ominous extremes of “The Omen” or “The Bad Seed,” but it nevertheless develops a prevalent eeriness around the chilling performance of a young child.
That would be the titular Stephanie (Shree Crooks, the youngest member of the anarchistic family in “Captain Fantastic”), who spends most of the movie entirely on her own in an empty house. After a bizarre and somewhat cheesy opening segment set in an inexplicable dystopian future, the movie flashes back to the disquieting story of Stephanie, who inhabits her empty suburban home under mysterious circumstances. While snippets of TV news hint at some global pandemic, Stephanie herself can’t explain the danger around her, but she knows to go into hiding whenever the sounds of an unseen monster fill her ears.
Outside of that, she appears to enjoy a fairly comfortable routine in her large, empty home, even as she misses her parents, who fled for unknown reasons. The movie stays with her perspective for so long that it provides one of the most impressive showcases for child actor in some time. Is Stephanie an orphan or isolated for more sinister reasons? Goldsman won’t tell — and just when that contained scenario runs out of air, Stephanie’s parents return.
It’s not immediately clear why Jane (Ann Torv) and Paul (Frank Grillo) abandoned their child, but their mixture of concern and fear for her situation suggests that there’s a lot more going on beyond the general threat as Stephanie understands it. As they attempt to interact with their daughter, their genial demeanor belies an undercurrent of paranoia, and naturally the girl herself becomes a worse threat than any of them imagined.
Anyone familiar with “The Twilight Zone” episode “It’s Good Life” may have some idea of what to expect, but let the spoilers end there. Needless to say, “Stephanie” roots its scares in a genuinely unnerving child performance and a grim atmosphere to match it. The script, by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, doesn’t dig deep into the psychological dread of a nuclear family coming apart at the seams — but the icy tone makes it tough to predict if any of these three survivors will survive the entire ordeal, and the violent finale refuses to make it easy on any of them.
But then it’s back to that baffling futuristic framing device, a near-laughable injection of sci-fi gimmicky that distracts from more streamlined genre achievement at the center of the movie. Produced by low-budget genre factory Blumhouse (“The Purge,” “Get Out”), “Stephanie” showcases the best and worst of that cheap model: It encourges an innovative and economical storytelling approach, but the scrappy production values obscure the stronger moments.
Fortunately, the cheesier bits in “Stephanie” are often mollified by Crooks’ subtle performance and Goldsman’s elegant visual sense — bodies dragged through the ground and doors abruptly slamming provide far greater punchlines than any special effects. “Stephanie” continually reverts to an eager-to-please genre mold, but it has enough going on to make that sufficient.
Ultimately, the movie works best as an unsettling mood piece told from the perspective of an unreliable narrative who’s too immature to comprehend the scope of the horror surrounding her. It’s a surprising move for Goldsman, but also a reasonable calling card for his upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s “Firestarter” — another creepy kid movie, this one with much more baggage attached. “Stephanie” doesn’t prove that Goldsman is a masterful genre director, but it has the hints of one in the making.
“Stephanie” premiered t the 2017 Overlook Film Festival. Universal will release it later this year.