THEY REACH movie poster | ©2020 Uncork’d Entertainment

THEY REACH movie poster | ©2020 Uncork’d Entertainment

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Mary Madaline Roe, Eden Campbell, Morgan Chandler, Ash Calder, Frederick Floyd, Taylor Bartle, Steffanie Foster Gustafson, Elizabeth Rhoades
Writers: Sylas Dall and Bry Troyer
Director: Sylas Dall
Distributor: Uncork’d Entertainment
Release Date: November 3, 2020

THEY REACH is an odd but rather sweet hybrid of bloody demonic horror and Spielbergian coming of age. The tones wind up dueling each other to a draw, resulting in a finale that, in most movies, would be frowned upon. Here, however, it may have been the best available solution.

In a 1969 prologue, we see researcher Dr. Quinnley (Damian Vines) and his grown son Alex (Taylor Bartle) looking into the case of a little boy who clearly needs an exorcist. They tape the session on a reel-to-reel recorder. Things go very bad, very fast.

Ten years later, in 1979, THEY REACH focuses on thirteen-year-old Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe). Jessica and her parents, dad John (Ash Calder) and Mom Grace (Elizabeth Rhoades), are all reeling from the death of Jessica’s older brother Steve. However, they aren’t becoming dysfunctional over it. Mom frets a little more than usual, Dad is spending a little more time in his basement workshop, and Jessica feels the need to go on an extended bicycle ride.

Jessica’s pedaling takes her to an antique and junk shop, where the tape recorder is in a box with other odds and ends. The store owner lets her have it for free out of sympathy for her family’s loss, and Jessica proudly presents her haul to her dad.

Here is where things take an unexpected turn in terms of the genre setup. Jessica is interested in both real science and science fiction. She builds toy robots and a science fair project involving potatoes and electricity. Her dad is bewildered by her lack of interest in cooking and sewing. Jessica is torn between her own instincts and wanting to please her parents.

Jessica’s best friends are klutzy but adoring Sam (Morgan Chandler) and idiosyncratic Cheddar (Eden Campbell), who doesn’t give a hoot about anybody’s opinion. The trio support each other unconditionally.

At the risk of making too much out of some grace notes – but they are marvelous grace notes – it’s not often that a genre movie gives us not just one but two unconventional female teen leads. Characters like Jessica, chafing against gender restrictions without being grouchy outsiders altogether, are not uncommon everywhere, but they tend not to be the focal points in horror films. As for Cheddar, exuberantly marching to her own beat, we just don’t see many characters like her at all on film (they are more plentiful in real life).

The performances by all three of the young actors – Roe, Campbell, and Chandler – and the fine details of their characters make us feel like we could have a whole movie or even a TV series about them, their families, and maybe the potato science project.

However, Jessica accidentally cuts herself and bleeds on the tape recorder. Some very weird, gory stuff starts happening around town, and the three kids are on the move, trying to figure out what, if anything, they can do to stop it.

Despite a fair amount of expository dialogue, we never do find out exactly how the demon selects its victims, or even what is being referred to by the “they” of the title. (There seems to be one entity.) A few of the adult supporting performances are a little larger than they should be, and the chain of custody on the tape recorder seems unlikely. (The filmmakers might have done better to just have had it abandoned after the exorcism and packed up by uninvolved house-cleaners.)

Still, director Sylas Dall knows his way around a jump scare and alarming splatter. He and co-writer Bry Troyer also employ horror tropes shrewdly. However, what makes THEY REACH memorable are the idiosyncratic and real-feeling young people at its center.

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