After arriving home from her older brother’s funeral in 1979, 13-year-old Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe) jumps on her red bike and heads to her local antiques store. Still wearing her funeral attire of a black dress and a bright wool hat, she enters the store rather suspiciously, for a reason left unclear. When inside, Jessica buys some records and a box labelled “trash”.
Inside the box is the reel-to-reel tape player that was used in the film’s cold opening to record the demonic possession of a young boy. It was a familiar scene featuring all the well-loved tropes: a priest, incoherent mumbling, sinister symbols, blood and violence, all taking place in a dark basement. When Jessica accidentally cuts her hand and drips blood on the tape player, she unknowingly unleashes the demonic presence that sets out to slaughter everyone in its path.
Jessica is an ordinary kid, but she’s made out to be “not like other girls” because she’s a science nerd with an affinity for robots, which the film wastes no time making frequent reference to. Her dad just doesn’t understand why she doesn’t learn to cook or sew instead. It’s uncertain whether this is an attempt to reflect on the attitudes of the time, or if they were just trying to make Jessica interesting, because she has absolutely nothing else going for her. At one point she says “I’m not a girl, I’m a nerd” as though nerdiness is exclusive to boys. Her friends, Sam (Morgan Chandler) and Cheddar (Eden Campbell), are no better and unfortunately come off just as annoying.
While They Reach will undoubtedly be compared to Stranger Things, the film feels closer to Summer of ‘84 or Stand By Me. There’s a lot of heavy visual cues indicating the film’s era, as well as bike riding and walking over train tracks. The film doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it’s competently made with a familiar story that fans of possession films will probably enjoy. It carries an eerie atmosphere throughout, filled with sudden scares, creepy whispers, and a banging rock soundtrack.
Although there’s some forced dialogue and stiff acting, they don’t detract from the overall experience as much as the plot does. The script feels underdeveloped, like an earlier draft. They Reach is tonally bizarre, unsure of whether it wants to be a comedy horror, a coming-of-age drama, or a fully fledged horror film. Ultimately, it attempts all three while being a nostalgia fest for adults who grew up in the 80s, though fans of Goosebumps will also see some tonal familiarity.
They Reach doesn’t seem to know if it wants to focus on the kids or the adults, splitting them up into different sets of action, throwing off the pace and making you wonder if you missed something. There’s also dialogue referring to things like Outer Limits and Tales from the Crypt, just to make sure we know what decade we’re in during the cold open. This level of exposition feels unnatural and is unnecessary because They Reach otherwise does a great job with the setting, creating a nostalgic atmosphere with the soundtrack, wardrobe and set design.
What lets down They Reach the most is that Jessica’s grief is left unexplored. Her brother’s death essentially means nothing. Jessica’s character is poorly written overall, but tapping into her grief would’ve provided her with the depth she needed, strengthening both her character and the overall script in turn.
Directed by Sylas Dall and co-written by Bry Troyer, the pair seem to have a love for the genre which definitely shines through even amongst the uneven script. You can tell a lot of passion has gone into this film with its beautiful shots, enjoyable soundtrack, and fun special effects. The filmmakers made a film in the vein of horror films and tropes they admire, but they failed to add an original flair. They Reach exists solely to be a sentimental throwback and sometimes that’s all that’s needed for those looking for a fun, easy and familiar watch.
They Reach screened at the virtual edition of Grimmfest 2020 between October 7th and October 11th
by Toni Stanger