A horror movie for younger viewers, albeit with a 15 certificate, here’s our review of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.
Director: Andre Øvredal
Cast: Zoe Colletti, Gabriel Rush
Reviewer: Mark Harrison
More than any genre throwback of recent years, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark feels like a remnant of a bygone age of mainstream horror cinema. Director Andre Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro have teamed up and essentially created a film that’s primarily for younger viewers sneaking into the cinema to see something they’d never usually be allowed to see.
Set in small-town Pennsylvania in 1968, the film starts on Halloween night, when horror-mad friends Stella, (Zoe Colletti) Augie, (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) plot a revenge prank on local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). In the aftermath of that prank, they wind up holing up in a reputedly haunted mansion with Ramón, (Michael Garza) a bystander who helps the kids out of a sticky spot.
As an avid horror enthusiast, Stella is thrilled to find a book of scary stories written by Sarah Bellows, a former resident of the house, but more perturbed when new stories about her friends begin to appear before her eyes. She’s even less thrilled when the stories turn out to be coming true, with monsters springing up as they’re written.
Unlike the acclaimed children’s book series, (which was written by Alvin Schwarz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell) Dan and Kevin Hageman’s script is a narrative feature rather than a series of short stories. While this could have been a welcome revival of the anthology format, the feature-length story by del Toro, Marcus Dunstan, and Patrick Melton takes an approach that’s reminiscent of 2015’s Goosebumps, which lumped several of R. L. Stine’s stories into a Jumanji-style run-around.
The effect is almost like watching a jukebox musical of the titular scary stories. Although the creepy idea of a book that reads our heroes and creates stories is a sound way of bringing everything these separate bids at American folklore, it falls to different characters to tee up stories about the Pale Lady and the Jangly Man as if for book fans who know these hits are coming. Even if you do know all the words, (so to speak) the resulting film is a little episodic for fans and newcomers alike.
Fortunately, it’s bound up by some fiendishly clever thematic work beneath it all. Taking place in the week between Halloween and the 1968 presidential election, the film keeps a sub-plot about the Vietnam War, the draft, and Nixon’s ascent to the White House bubbling under the more conventional chills, chiming significantly with the kids’ discoveries about Sarah and her family history. It makes for a film in which young people wind up suffering for the older generations’ mistakes, whether supernatural or political.
This element is enough to set it apart from Goosebumps, but it’s also designed as a harder film than the original target audience should be able to stomach. In the UK, it has received a 15-certificate from the BBFC, but its intended PG-13 scares feel simultaneously too toned down for hardcore horror aficionados and too frightening for young viewers.
Still, it’s churlish to put down a horror film for being too scary, especially when Øvredal has created one or two setpieces that really got under our skin. Most of the monster sequences are properly terrifying, thanks to canny editing and some impeccably designed prosthetic effects, but the aforementioned Pale Lady heralds an especially hair-raising highlight.
The non-monster characters are pretty great too. Colletti and Garza both give breakout performances and Rush and Zajur are terrific in the more grounded comic relief roles. Between them, the young ensemble quickly shake off the vibe of a senior-year Stranger Things and truly connect us to those characters and their impending doom, even if they don’t necessarily connect up the story so well.
In a way, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is too true to the notoriously frightening source material. There can be no doubting that Øvredal, whose previous credits include Troll Hunter and The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, has the genre chops for the job, but there’s a naivety about its bouncing between commercial horror and artful nightmare fuel. The oddly open ending speaks to its crossed purposes more than anything.
What it lacks in suspense and momentum, it more than makes up for with bone-chilling incidents and a deceptively thoughtful setup. The scares may not necessarily translate for a more seasoned cinema audience but will most likely find an appreciative but terrified younger audience once it comes to DVD and streaming services. Uneven though it may be, this has all the makings of a future cult classic.