Producer: Bry Troyer   Director: Sylas Dall   Screenplay: Sylas Dall and Bry Troyer   Cast: Mary Madaline Roe, Eden Campbell, Morgan Chandler, Ash Calder, Frederick Floyd, Taylor Bartle, Steffanie Foster Gustafson, Elizabeth Rhoades, Eric Schmidt, Damian Vines, Adrienne Jordan, Bry Troyer, Jason Heisman and Anthony Gee   Distributor: Uncork’d Entertainment  

Grade: C-

The promotional materials for Sylas Dall’s period teen horror movie invite comparisons to “Stranger Things,” but the influences are wider than that, going back to Spielberg and his many imitators from the 1980s, old-time horror flicks and elsewhere too.  (To prove its super-indie credentials, for instance, it names the two doofus cops—Anthony Gee and Jason Heisman—who fall prey to evil forces Deputy Kevin Smith and Deputy Jason Mewes—a lame joke, perhaps, but one any connoisseur of no-budget cult classics will at least take notice of.)

In the event, though, the movie is one of many would-be nostalgia trips whose reach exceeds its grasp, despite the evident enthusiasm behind it. 

The script is about a possessed tape recorder that acts as a door unleashing demons on a small town.  Its origin as a conduit is explained in a prologue dated 1969, in which an exorcism is being performed on a possessed boy by young Alex Quinnley (Taylor Bartle), his father (Damian Vines) and a priest (Tim Schrup).  It goes badly, and it becomes necessary to kill the child as a “sacrifice”; his blood oozes into the recorder they’re using to tape the session.

Ten years later, thirteen-year old Jessica Daniels (Mary Madaline Roe) is mourning her dead older brother along with her parents Jon (Ash Calder) and Grace (Elizabeth Rhoades).  She’s comforted by her buddies, nerdy Sam (Morgan Chandler), who’s obviously infatuated with her, and free-spirited tomboy Cheddar (Eden Campbell).

Jessica is interested in science, and spends time collecting stuff from thrift stores to build things from.  Among her recent acquisitions is a box of junk that contains—shudder!—an old tape recorder crusted with gunk.  She accidentally cuts herself and drips some blood on it.  That sets the thing to malevolent work, and Grace is its first victim—she changes into a horrible replica of herself, and then disappears.

Jessica and her friends undertake an investigation of what’s happening that—of course—leads them through an oddball librarian obsessed with the occult to Alex, now a priest himself.  Meanwhile John has been arrested by Sheriff Wells (Frederick Floyd) on suspicion of having done away with his wife and daughter.  Naturally all that gets sorted out as the survivors among the adults join with the kids in ending the menace.

You have to give Dall (who served as production designer and editor as well as directing and co-writing the script with producer Bry Troyer, who takes a small role too) for his dedication to putting “They Reach” together on what was surely a miniscule budget.  The period detail is quite good given the limitations, and James Winters’ cinematography is generally solid.  The effects are simple, as one might expect, with more blood splatters than gore, as befitting a movie aimed at an adolescent audience, and the score by Carlos Garcia isn’t oppressive, as those in films like this often are.

Unfortunately, Dall hasn’t been able to elicit exceptional work from his cast.  The adults doing comic relief are the worst, but none of them are particularly strong.  The important thing, of course, is the youngsters, and there the results are mixed.  Chandler is a likable lug, and Roe, though often self-conscious, makes an engaging heroine.  Campbell, on the other hand, is inclined to mug rather badly, and Dall hasn’t helped matters by not only encouraging her on set but editing in so many of her reaction shots.  By the close one might find her more annoying than amusing.

“They Reach” succeeds in achieving a retro feel, and has sporadic moments of innocent charm and mild excitement.  Overall, though, it’s just a conscientious effort, not a keeper.