By Paul Gandersman | Horror
A teenage girl conducts an ancient ritual to enact revenge on those who wronged her.

Outcast and misunderstood, Sarah is angry. The mean girls at her high school have spread a heinous rumor about her through their school’s gossip mill. But they have no idea that the object of their persecution is a witch with legit supernatural powers.

Sarah decides to use her powerful magic to conjure forth an entity called the Givertaker, who will enact her revenge upon the popular girl clique. But things take an unexpected turn when unleashing the Givertaker also unravels some tricky truths about Sarah herself.

Director Paul Gandersman and writer Peter S. Hall’s horror short is both a clever homage to 90s-era high school films and a modern evocation of the Goosebumps series of novels for older kids. But it leavens its vein of nostalgia with a smart, emotionally perceptive take on the knotty complexities of female friendship that make it especially modern.

Like other entertainments like Stranger Things, the story mines a particularly pleasurable vein of 90s nostalgia, from the bright, saturated cinematography to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the dialogue to the pitch-perfect costuming that could have come straight out of Delia’s catalog. The traditional horror elements are kept at a subtle level, too. There’s a chilling, dissonant score, but there’s also a refreshing lack of jump scares or horror VFX.

Instead, the horror and suspense come from the interpersonal dynamics of these seemingly mean girls, and the ways they undercut, undermine and jockey for domination over one another through social capital. The writing clearly has fun with the horror elements, but it actually is an examination of two friends outgrowing one another, and the way that social cruelty is a contagion. It takes seriously the emotional lives of its young female characters, letting these needs drive the actions of the characters. And though it’s not feminist in agenda, its complex, even-handed representation of the teens and their relationships with one another are refreshing and nuanced.

Of course, “Givertaker” is a horror film, and it pays off the genre expectations with a fantastic evocation of the titular creature, complete with otherworldly smoke and crashing metal soundtrack. Ultimately the Givertaker makes the final judgment call in this teen imbroglio, and though it’s not surprising, it upends the typical expectations.

For those who loved Goosebumps in the 90s, “Givertaker” (and its forthcoming companion shorts in the Dead Kids Club series) updates the formula of “scary books that are also funny” with modern themes and emotional intelligence, all the while keeping the creepiness and subtle menace that come not just through the demons and ghouls, but from the difficulties of adolescence.

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