Not quite the bloody mess its title would suggest, but a bit of a mess nonetheless, Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Abattoir” is a franchise-aspirational horror opus that takes too long establishing its premise, then peters out in a climactic jumble of scare-free digital effects. Some weak key performances and an uncertain tone further dim the appeal of this latest from the director of several “Saw” sequels and “Repo! The Genetic Opera.” Shot in late 2014, it’s finally arriving on 10 AMC screens nationwide after a tour of genre fests, simultaneous with streaming release.
Newspaper reporter Julia Talben (Jessica Lowndes from the “90210” reboot) panics when she gets a call at work from someone who identifies himself simply as “The man who just killed your sister.” Rushing to the latter’s house with police detective friend/suitor Grady (Joe Anderson), she discovers that indeed Amanda (Jackie Tuttle), as well as Amanda’s husband and small child, have been slaughtered. What’s more, the perp (a brief turn by Michael Pare) is still on the premises passively waiting for arrest, explaining cryptically that he “only did what I had to.”
As the killer has no prior criminal record or apparent motive, this seems a case of utterly random violence and insanity. But Julia’s suspicions are aroused when Amanda’s house is sold with unbecoming speed just days after the tragedy. Then she’s flummoxed to discover that the bedroom in which the murders occurred has been literally ripped from the structure and transported elsewhere, the mystery buyer evidently having no use for the rest of the home. Some research discloses that at least a half-dozen such “kill rooms,” all the sites of inexplicable grisly crimes, have similarly vanished over the last half-century.
The evidence trail leads to a town called New English, whose sheriff (John McConnell) advises Julia that the residents don’t like strangers because they are a little strange themselves. The first friendly face she sees is that of batty spinster Allie (Lin Shaye from the “Insidious” series), who likewise advises her to leave immediately, but agrees to put her up for the night instead. They’re soon joined by Grady, who’s followed Julia here.
It takes nearly an hour before these uninvited guests realize there is indeed something very strange going on in New English, under the malevolent direction of a cult leader ominously named Jebediah Crone (“Sons of Anarchy’s” Dayton Callie). Much running and screaming ensues.
Bousman co-created a 2011 series of “Abattoir” comics setting up the town’s backstory, but here neither he nor Christopher Monfette’s screenplay manage to include that intel gracefully, let alone suspensefully. The film plods in its buildup, then rushes hectically through a haunted-(composite)-house climax, initially involving a particularly un-scary arrangement of separate “kill rooms” as outdoor dioramas, in which past crimes are doomed to endlessly reenact themselves. Their phantom players whoosh through like sped-up drifting smoke, stirring no fear whatsoever, while clumsy dialogue periodically dumps buckets of garbled explication on the proceedings.
Though it’s handsome enough to look at, “Abattoir” can’t quite seem to decide just how supernatural it wants to be or how meta its horror content should play; New English appears to be frozen in time, yet its residents are mortal … or maybe they’re not. So despite good production values and some nice visual atmospherics, the tenor teeters awkwardly between muted camp and straightforward thrills. Aside from a few tepid jump scares, nothing here connects in a way that actually generates tension. It doesn’t help that Bousman’s actors also seem unsure just how seriously to treat the goings-on, with Lowndes’ callow scream-queen heroine and Callie’s unimposing villain both lowering the emotional stakes considerably.
In the end, “Abattoir” feels like a confused rehash of ideas from the variable likes of “The Shining,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “Thirteen Ghosts” and other haunted-house movies, albeit one so misjudged that it doesn’t even get to the house itself until the last 20 minutes or so. If there were potential here, it’s been garbled in translation. Bousman would be better off starting over again from conceptual scratch rather than proceeding with the sequel announced 18 months ago (though one suspects that’s less fast-tracked now). A fresh start would also allow him to ditch an off-putting title that promises a grim gorefest, which, whatever its other qualities, “Abattoir” is not.