They Reach: The Strangest Thing, by Tyler Smith
To say that Sylas Dall’s They Reach is derivative of the Netflix series Stranger Things is hardly a bold statement. From the character dynamics to the period setting to the title font, this film owes more than a little to the runaway hit science fiction series. However, in the world of horror, imitation is seldom a legitimate reason to dismiss a film outright. In fact, many of the best scary movies are simply retreads of well-known material, but approached with sincerity and gusto. The same can be said of They Reach, a low budget horror film that, while far from perfect, is so visually and tonally engaging that both the film’s flaws and derivations fall away.
Taking place in 1979, the story involves a young girl named Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe) who stumbles upon an old reel-to-reel audio recorder that, we later realize, is hexed by a demonic force eager to use it as a gateway to this world. As Jessica and her best friends Sam (Morgan Chandler) and Cheddar (Eden Campbell) unravel this mystery, those around them increasingly fall victim to the evil forces at work.
The story may be a bit half-baked and the performances are, unfortunately, a little too self conscious to be fully convincing, but director Sylas Dall – along with his cinematographer James Winters – captures the action with such loving detail that it’s hard not to allow oneself to get invested in the ultimate outcome. Along with some convincing period production design, the beautiful photography of this film does much of the heavy lifting, creating an atmosphere that is somehow both nostalgic and menacing. Modern low budget filmmaking tends to require a certain amount of forgiveness on the part of the audience, particularly in regard to the visual aesthetic. Flat digital photography with some light color correction is often the most we can hope for. They Reach, however, boasts some of the richest and most satisfying visuals in recent memory, and they work to elevate the material far above its considerable limitations.
Of course, none of this would mean anything if the film didn’t deliver on its horrific premise, which it thankfully does. Dall shows himself to be a natural horror filmmaker, attuned to the smallest details required to make a scene genuinely frightening. And, like many of the best directors, he understands how to utilize what is unseen, inviting the audience to ignore its survival instinct and lean forward to see exactly what’s going on. Sometimes what follows is a jump scare (so often dismissed by critics as a cheap thrill, but so effective if done right, which it certainly is here), while at others it is a slow realization of exactly what we’re looking at. Unsurprisingly, the slow burn moments of eventual understanding are what stick with us long after the film is over.
In the end, They Reach is a flawed but entertaining film that introduces us to an obviously talented filmmaker still finding his way. And while the story may meander a bit and the performers aren’t always the most dependable, the atmosphere of dread that slowly creeps over the entire film more than makes up for these shortcomings. So while, like many other films in the genre, this movie may clearly derive its concept from a well-known source, it manages to so fully realize its stylistic goals that it transcends its uninspired origins and becomes something that feels fresh and, occasionally, vital.