Sung Kang ditches the fast and furious lifestyle for his directorial debut Shaky Shivers — a delightful gateway horror treat that recalls the Goosebumps television show or Are You Afraid of the Dark. Its Young Adult vibes bring two girls face to face with werewolf curses, zombification, and friendly ice cream parlor wholesomeness. Some might see the "gateway" description and wince, but that's not meant as a zinger — Shaky Shivers is filled with giggles and quirky horror introductions that make the genre accessible to all audiences. There's something Nickelodeon After Midnight about it all, as Kang turns a low-budget buddy comedy with teeth into a sweet tale about friendship, brainfreeze, and choosing our destinies over giving up to lesser fates.
Brooke Markham stars as Luci, who we meet handcuffed to a steering wheel in best friend Karen's (VyVy Nguyen) vehicle. Why? Because Luci fears she's been cursed by a woodland vagabond (Erin Daniels as Mama Nature), who casts a werewolf spell when denied the compassion of free ice cream. Luci thinks she's gotten through the transformation window when it happens — she wakes up naked, dazed, and alone the following day. Luci's a werewolf alright, and Karen's the only one who knows. Can the unprepared scoopers reverse Luci's condition before she turns once again?
Shaky Shivers relies heavily on Markham and VyVy Nguyen since they command most screen time. Settings are a pick between their Friendly Freeze workplace, an abandoned summer camp cabin where Karen tries to aid Luci, or the station wagon where they start the night. Markham and Nguyen bubble charisma as besties who react hilariously to Luci's newfound identity as a werewolf. They're peppy, sassy, and compassionately quirky as Karen attempts a makeshift blood transfusion, or they mistakenly read incorrect spells from a notebook filled with curse activations. That's why they gleefully have to escape a zombie or share their own An American Werewolf In London moment when reanimating a corpse to pump for information (Jimmy Bellinger).
Screenwriters Andrew McAllister and Aaron Strongoni aren't rewriting history with Shaky Shivers. Karen and Luci encounter lycanthropy and zombieism at face value, and their character arcs as "slackers" still waiting for their big break have been tackled to death. What Kang does well is embrace simplicity and focus on the warmth present between Luci and Karen, taking the macabre — gunshot executions, brain-hungry undead, doodled Necronomicon knockoffs — and bathing it all in a bright sunshiny cuteness. As Luci herds a shambling zombie, she does so while twirling around like a gymnast, having fun with the otherwise dreadful scenario. Karen's giddiness and curiosity about Luci's werewolf hazard are equally endearing, producing too many smiles.
Shaky Shivers saves its budget for a few practical effects versus spending elsewhere and committing a cardinal indie werewolf sin: the CGI transformation. Luci's morph into a hairy monster mongrel is allowed to shine as muscles rip through parachute sweats — the same goes for gnarly zombie costumes that fill mouths with jagged teeth like a Sarlacc. Shaky Shivers isn't extensively gore-heavy or action-oriented, but what's there is mostly done with makeup and prosthetics outside the film's telepathic "force push" attacks during finale standoffs. Nevertheless, Kang displays knowledge of precisely what horror fans desire when they hear the words "werewolf" or "zombie" and never tries to cheat past make-or-break sequences. Even if some of the practical props are hilarious, like a gigantic milkshake that looks like it belongs in a children's ice cream shop playset.
All that said, Shaky Shivers has a ceiling based on what Kang and company can execute given obvious production limitations. There's a generic blueprint that performers and cheerful signatures elevate, but the script's childish silliness, paired with a lack of narrative ambition, becomes the film's own worst enemy in spots. Not to say anything is torpedoed, but genre fans hungry for something feistier or more boundary-pushing might be underwhelmed. The sleepover demographic is strong here, especially for girls who don't get the type of horror representation Shaky Shivers savors — that's both a positive and negative.
Still, Shaky Shivers delivers comedic chills and howls with infectious laughter that becomes the ultimate trademark of Sung Kang's first fright flick. A tender moral fable about finding "good" in "weird" amongst other reaffirming messages is underneath all the snarls, screams, and blood. Brooke Markham and VyVy Nguyen find no shortage of adorable chemistry in the most obscene moments, all before one of the year's hands-down oddest and hypnotic cameos worth admission. What an unexpected cherry on top of this saccharine genre sundae, sure to plaster a smile on your face from the sugar high alone.
Movie Score: 3/5