They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but it is also a handy method of testing cultural footprints. It has been five years since Netflix debuted its nostalgia supernatural series Stranger Things, and there is now a steady trickle of derivative works popping up on a semi-regular basis. That almost makes it nostalgia-squared: since Stranger Things itself is a highly derivative work, this wave of American horror flicks featuring child and teen protagonists is close to resembling a snake eating its own tail. Sylas Dall’s They Reach is the latest of these films to cross my path; a 2020 release, it is currently streaming – in Australia at least – on Amazon Prime.
1979. Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe) is mourning the death of his quarterback brother when she comes into possession of a boxful of junk. Tinkering with a tape recorder she finds inside, she accidentally unleashes a murderous demonic force. With the help of her friends – love-struck Sam (Morgan Chandler) and the uncontrollable “Cheddar” (Eden Campbell) – she races to close the door to hell before it consumes her soul.
They Reach fully treads on pre-existing territory. There is simply no way around that fact, and for many viewers that is going to prove a deal-breaker. The juvenile cast, humorous characters, sudden moments of scares and gore, and particularly the period setting all echo the Duffer Brothers’ streaming series in the loudest and most obvious of fashions. It does not do as good a job as Stranger Things‘ first celebrated season either, which raises the question of why bother with a sub-standard product when the original is sitting right there on the shelf?
Given the long lead times experienced by many independent films, it is possible – even likely – that the development of They Reach pre-dates Stranger Things entirely. It is the deep unfairness that lies at the heart of narrative storytelling: it is never about how made the idea first, but rather who got in front of audiences. It can be remarkably unfair to filmmakers, but that sadly is the way it works.
It is a shame that the film does seem so derivative, since aside from Dall and co-writer Bry Troyer’s screenplay, there is rather a lot in They Reach to enjoy. It has an upbeat tone and a solid seam of comedy through several of its characters. There is a softness to Sam and Jessica’s tentative teen romance that you do not normally see. As Cheddar, Eden Campbell may be playing a bit of a cliche but she is also playing a cliche that is usually male and she brings a great amount of entertainment value along for the ride. The general emphasis the film places on its female characters is laudable, and is a key area in which They Reach distinguishes itself.
The overall tone is a little uneven. A prologue sequence pins the film firmly in The Conjuring territory, with a father-and-son team investigating an apparent case of demonic posession. The results of that sequence stand in sharp opposition to the more light-hearted take expressed elsewhere. When there is no blood on screen it feels very much like the same sorts of child-to-teen genre fare tapped by Stranger Things. When the blood does come flowing from time to time, there is a more gleeful sense of early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Those three styles do not gel together particularly well – although Dall demonstrates a proficiency in directing all three of them.
This is an entertaining film for audiences with measured expectations: good rather than great, but also tightly enough made to not outstay its welcome. What will likely be more interesting is what – if anything – Sylas Dall chooses to make next. There is potential here that I dearly hope gets fulfilled in future.