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.
The importance of gateway horror for young audience cannot be overstated. Illicit viewing of terrifying and entirely age-inappropriate material was a childhood rite of passage for just about anyone with a penchant for scares in their adult days. Whether it’s a secretly borrowed DVD of a gory classic or the dog-eared pages of a Stephen King novel, the first taste of that forbidden fruit is always the most flavoursome. It’s for that reason that horror movies actually made for a younger audience are of vital importance, whether it’s the recent Jack Black double-whammy of Goosebumps and The House With a Clock In Its Walls or the macabre early output of stop-motion studio Laika.
The latest entry to that canon is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, adapted from a well-loved but controversial anthology series of horror short stories. Bizarrely saddled with a kiddie-excluding 15 certificate in the UK, the film is a nasty slice of PG-13 horror that shows a family-friendly feel doesn’t mean the boundaries of terror can’t be pushed and twisted with grotesque glee. With The Autopsy of Jane Doe director André Øvredal at the helm and monster maestro Guillermo del Toro among the producers, this is an affectionate spookfest which brims with love for the genre and packs in mature themes about what it means to relish being terrified.
Scary Stories starts on Halloween night in 1968 – nothing is scarier than Nixon’s imminent election win – with a group of teens seeking to get one over on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). They escape into a drive-in cinema showing Night of the Living Dead and meet Ramon (Michael Garza), whom they invite to accompany them to a notorious local haunted house. Stella (Zoe Colletti) takes a mysterious book belonging to Sarah Bellows – a young girl who was found hanged in the house a century earlier. In the coming days, stories seemingly written in blood begin to write themselves in the book, with the kids as the protagonists, and they also play out their terrors in real life.
The film unfolds as a cross between Goosebumps and Final Destination as the kids are picked off one by one by a selection of creatures from folklore, as if chosen by destiny for their misdeed in taking the book. Each horror sequence is based on one of the short stories from the literary anthology, from the exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin ‘The Big Toe’ through to the rather more oblique ‘Me Tie Dough-ty Walker’. At times, it feels as if the movie might have been better served by being an anthology itself, suffering a little from the need to establish its over-arching narrative before the ghost train can begin to rattle along the tracks.
Once the train does lock on to those tracks, though, Øvredal’s horror flair really shines. The creatures are rendered via the sort of combination of practical effects and CGI that powered Del Toro’s visually stunning – if narratively divisive – Crimson Peak. This imbues them with an unnerving, uncanny sense of near-reality that makes them genuinely scary, most notably the third act arrival of the Jangly Man – a hybrid of The Exorcist‘s Reagan during her spider walk and The Beast from Glass. He’s immediately a chilling horror icon for the ages.
But this film succeeds based on the chemistry between its young performers and the potent heart it boasts in amongst the carnage. Del Toro’s presence is keenly felt in the over-arching message, that outsiders and the persecuted have always taken solace in stories and in horror, but this doesn’t make them monsters. Scary Stories may be a nerve-jangling tale of terror, and one with a refreshing embrace of the grotesque given its family-friendly positioning, but it’s also a deeply human story about the tragedy of prejudice and abuse.
There are bum notes here and there. A brief sojourn into the backstory of the central book brings up a sad evocation of the ‘magical negro’ trope that goes nowhere and the sequel tease is perhaps a touch too obvious. There’s also very little for Dean Norris to do as one of the character’s fathers, despite the suggestion he is going to be important to the plot during the very slow and hopelessly over-extended first act.
With that said, though, Scary Stories really builds to a crescendo at the right time with a genuinely unsettling final act that packs a punch emotionally, as well as in the shivers department.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.