Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 2019.
Directed by André Øvredal.
Starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris and Javier Botet.
A group of teenagers are pursued by various supernatural beasties when they uncover an old book from a haunted house.
Alvin Schwartz’s legendary children’s horror book series receives a stately if not-quite-convincing treatment from Trollhunter director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro. No matter the clear care put into bringing these beloved stories to the big screen, the end result just doesn’t register enough of a pulse to truly tantalise.
In a controversial move, rather than take the anthology form of the written stories, del Toro has opted to compile them into a contiguous new narrative. This story takes place in 1968, with a heavy accompanying Vietnam War context, where four misfit teenagers visit their local haunted house on Halloween night and come into possession of a book of yes, scary stories. Periodically, the book writes itself a grim new story starring one of the teens, which soon enough ends up playing out in reality as the kids fight to avert their written fate.
It’s a tidy enough idea with a relatively solid foundational logic, and if nothing else, certainly had the potential to deliver the PG-13 Final Destination thrills many of us were hoping Truth or Dare would last year.
And yet after an engaging introduction to the quick-witted teens, the film settles into a disappointingly listless mode, failing to make creepy good on the undeniably iconic quality of the featured stories (and their associated monsters). This property is admittedly a tough tonal nut to crack, and by failing to aim itself squarely at either younger children or older teens, the end result feels a tad confused and unsure of itself.
For all of its goofball camp presumably aimed at younger viewers, hormone-infused one-liners are surprisingly frequent, yet the film’s restrictive audience rating also prevents Øvredal from doing anything truly transgressive – even if the film bafflingly received a 15 rating in the UK.
It was important for this adaptation to address how audience tastes have shifted since Schwartz’s stories were released, but it doesn’t ever really feel like a point del Toro and Øvredal have managed to reconcile. As a result this film is often stamina-suckingly tame, and therefore forced to rely on sporadically amusing one-liners alongside admittedly solid performances and an overall sharp style.
Indeed, few will have complaints about Scary Stories‘ production values; Øvredal is clearly trying his best to make the oft-weak writing as conducive to atmosphere as possible, while a general reliance on practical visual effects, as expected from del Toro, does give a few of the set-pieces a pleasantly tactile jolt.
The young cast members largely turn out to be the highlight, though, their banter entirely believable even when they’re occasionally forced to maintain a straight face through a clanger of a one-liner. While many similar films play the teen characters as cartoonishly obnoxious and worthy of death as a result, that’s admirably not the case here.
In terms of the adults, Dean Norris deserves a special shout-out for giving a far more nuanced performance in this movie than anyone could have asked for; a late sequence where he shares a teary phone call with his daughter Stella (Zoe Colletti) evidently belongs in a much better movie.
It looks great and the cast gives it their all, but Scary Stories is neither scary nor fun enough to be anything more than a passing, easily forgotten carnival of (mild) horrors.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★