THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW l Netflix

It can be tempting to grade gateway horror on a curve. Horror fans want to give films the benefit of the doubt if there’s a chance they will make younger viewers fall in love with the genre we care about so much. With director Jeff Wadlow’s THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW, written by Todd Berger and Robert Rugan, that grade falls somewhere in the middle.

The film has its issues: the story framework is rather weak and unoriginal, the film speeds past its most compelling images without allowing the audience enough time to appreciate them, and the script includes two bafflingly unnecessary uses of the “g***y” slur. Still, there are strong set pieces and fun moments, and the film is saved by a personable cast with strong chemistry and comedic talent, along with some impressive special effects and creature designs. THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW may not become a Halloween classic, but — for the most part — it’s an enjoyable bit of spooky fun.

Sydney Gordon (Priah Ferguson) is a 14-year-old reluctantly moving from Brooklyn to the small town of Bridge Hollow. Her dad Howard (Marlon Wayans) is the town’s new science teacher, and her mom Emily (Kelly Rowland) is a lawyer-turned-bakery owner. Howard has made all of Sydney’s decisions for her so far in life, pushing her to join the science team and making her take karate classes rather than ballet as she wanted. Now that she’s growing up, though, Sydney wants to make her own way in life, which includes celebrating Halloween despite her dad’s objections to how “ridiculous” it is.

Unfortunately, Sydney’s celebrations include lighting a cursed lantern she finds inside their new house, which brings back the spirit of town legend Stingy Jack and the evil curse that accompanies him. The curse brings all the decorations in the Halloween-obsessed town to life, and Sydney and Howard must join forces with their new friends and neighbors to fight Stingy Jack’s evil army and save Bridge Hollow.

The dynamic tension between Sydney and Howard is the driving force of the film, and both Ferguson and Wayans do a good job with their respective roles. Sydney feels slightly less fleshed out as a character than Howard does, but that’s kind of the point: she’s still figuring out who she is as a person, especially as someone who has lived her whole life under the weight of her dad’s expectations. Wayans, unsurprisingly, is very funny in the film, taking what would typically be the straight-man role — the skeptical scientist thrust against his will into doing battle with supernatural forces — and turning it into an interesting mix of straight-man and comic relief. He also pays homage to his brother, Damon Wayans, and references one of his iconic roles from In Living Color, when Howard faces off against a demonic, axe-wielding clown and deadpans, “Homey don’t play that.”

Nods and quick references fill the film’s script, as THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW brings up some interesting ideas but never really delves into them with any depth. The Gordons are a Black family moving to a predominantly white area, but beyond a few quick references — Howard says that “Bridge Hollow smells like apples and a hint of white privilege,” and the high school’s Principal Floyd (John Michael Higgins) has a “Coexist” sticker on his bicycle in a clear (and funny) jab at white liberalism — the film doesn’t have anything else to say on the subject.

Similarly, it brings up a fascinating religious issue but drops it with bizarre abruptness. In a surprising turn of events (light spoiler alert!), Principal Floyd turns out to be a Satanist. He claims merely to be a “collector” of occult items, since he is a school official in a predominantly Christian town and therefore can’t admit to being anything nearly as “controversial” as a Satanist. After the evil curse is defeated, though, he immediately disavows Satan and informs the town priest that he’s now on his “team.” It’s a puzzling, whiplash-inducing character arc that seems to serve only as a way for the plot to move from points A to B, since Principal Floyd conveniently owns the grimoire that our heroes need in order to defeat Stingy Jack.

The sequences where Sydney, Howard, and their allies fight the evil forces are the highlights of the film. Mystical red light spreads Stingy Jack’s evil like a poison throughout the town, bringing Halloween decorations like witches, zombies, and giant spiders to life. Howard gets a moment to shine when he singlehandedly defeats a whole football team of killer skeletons with a chainsaw, and Sydney has a similar moment of bravery when she saves her dad from a spider the size of a Buick. The creature designs, particularly in the murderous clowns and in Stingy Jack himself, are chilling, and they make the biggest case for THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW as worthy gateway horror. They’re just the right combination of creepy and cool, and they should satisfy older horror fans (many of whom will recognize those Killer Klowns) as well as younger viewers new to the genre.

The quality of the effects and the creature designs make it especially frustrating, though, that the film seems opposed to showing off its best set pieces and visual compositions. When Sydney and company head to the high school carnival on their quest to stop Stingy Jack, the aforementioned axe-wielding clowns chase them through a maze. We see an overhead shot of the group moving from one neon-lit room to another, searching for a safe exit as clowns chase after them. It’s a visually arresting shot, and it adds a lot of suspense to the film, but the film cuts away from it far too quickly for the viewer to appreciate either its beauty or its tension.

The same thing happens at Principal Floyd’s house: a lamp falls over and the viewer sees Howard against a wall as the shadows of evil skeletons threaten him. It’s an impressively creepy moment and perhaps the most striking shot in the whole film, but once again the movie cuts away before we can fully register what we’re seeing. It’s disappointing for a film with a script that feels rather slapdash at times to seem so disinterested in its remarkable visual elements that could make up for the film’s narrative weaknesses.

Therein lies the issue with THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW. With a few tweaks here and there — the removal of the gratuitous slurs, another pass or two on the script to strengthen the story, and more care shown for the film’s best shots — this could be a great new family film for Halloween. As it stands, it’s still a fun, spooky movie with lots of laughs, some gentle scares, and an engaging cast. But while it could have been a full-size candy bar in your trick-or-treat bag, THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW ends up as a bite-size piece of off-brand candy that you don’t mind having if you can’t trade it for something better.

THE CURSE OF BRIDGE HOLLOW is now on Netflix.

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