Review: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Director: André Øvredal

Stars: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows

The oral history of scary stories is delightful; spooky tales told around campfires, or whispered before stone fireplaces in creaky old cottages and mansions. The telling of these stories – dark fairy tales if you will – down the ages has a very romantic lean to it. Granted, its a wickedly gleeful tradition of provoking fear in those we hold near and dear, but even this, in itself, is a form of communicating said bonds. You’re close, the storyteller advises the listener, I can share this with you.

John Carpenter knew the magic of campfire tales; he opened his throwback horror flick The Fog with children on a beach listening to dear John Houseman telling one last story before midnight, setting the tone perfectly for what was to follow. Guillermo del Toro knows a thing or two about telling a good story, too. He produces here, and is one of the (many) hands to have touched the script, shaping Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark into a kind of entry-level horror movie. The intention, it seems clear, is for del Toro and director André Øvredal to shepherd a new generation of cinemagoers into this great tradition of sharing stories…

It pays to do your research before going in to some films. I didn’t with this one. I’d seen the trailer and that was it. Looked fun; I like horror movies; let’s go. So for the similarly uninitiated, Scary Stories is based on a series of young adult horror books by Alvin Schwartz, published sporadically in the 80’s and 90’s. These were volumes of short stories, which here have been tethered into a continuing narrative. ‘Continuing’ being perhaps the operative word…

It’s the Halloween of 1967 in the town of Mill Valley; a leafy little one-horse. Stella (Zoe Margete Colletti) and her friends antagonise a local bully while out trick or treating, and pry behind the closed doors of a dusty old mansion, having picked up a young drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza) along the way. Of course, the house is rumoured to be haunted and Stella – a wannabe writer of spooky stories hersel -, steals a book before the gang scamper off into the night. Pretty soon they realise that the book is cursed; it keeps writing new stories about them. And if they’re not careful, each new story will be the death of one of them.

It’s a neat enough idea, and Øvredal presents it warmly. The young actors range from fine to pretty good, and time is invested early in making them a pleasant bunch to be around, particularly Colletti and Garza. The film belts along, too, and why shouldn’t it? There’s plenty of set-up to get done with before it can get on to the so-called ‘good stuff’. However, this comes to feel like cliff-noting. There’s pacey and then there’s restless. Scary Stories tips into the latter category. It doesn’t help that it cleaves closely to modern horror’s playbook, catering to attention spans that are presumed short. Cheap jumps and cacophonous soundscapes are, sadly, the order of the day.

As such, rarely is any sense of genuine dread or peril particularly well nurtured. This seems to be intentional. As mentioned, the feeling presented is that Scary Stories should act as a gateway or litmus test for young people interested in the genre, but a little afraid of jumping in with both feet. Øvredal isn’t coy, and will readily show his boogeymen to the audience, over-exposing them where inference may have proven much, much scarier. That these creations have the slick, unreal sheen of CG-assistance doesn’t help them any. The more-is-less failures of Mama spring to mind.

The stories themselves feel familiar, too. This feeds back into the theme of tradition. The grim yarn of ‘The Big Toe’ is exactly one such campfire story, while the scarecrow that springs to life has really been done to death by this point. It doesn’t help either that an awful lot of these set pieces were shown off in the aforementioned trailer. Again, an example of more leading to less. When they arrive in the picture, the impact is softened because you kind of know already what the deal is.

Again, this seems deliberate. But this coddling neuters Scary Stories, and forgets how teenagers really tend to investigate horror, which is by surrepticiously watching the notorious titles when the parents are out of the way. It’s the ones you shouldn’t watch that get you invested, not the ones that have a cadre of writers and producers carefully ensuring that the edges aren’t too sharp for you. Where’s the fun in that?

Øvredal does mount a few effective sequences (particularly one set in a hospital corridor that owes a lot to the J-horror boom of 20 years ago), but Scary Stories has a more pressing tendency to feel scatty and jumbled. As though there’s one too many stories crammed in here to fit the running time. That the film ends on an open invitation for not just a sequel but a continuation only sours the experience further. Del Toro and co have started up an overarching narrative, but then hedged their bets that they’ll be afforded further instalments in which to tie it all up again. In the here and now that’s not very satisfying, and feels rather like it would if John Houseman had gotten up halfway through his story to wander off and talk to some other kids. Ultimately, this might’ve been far better off presented as an anthology, like the source.

It’s handsome enough, but with all of the above in mind, its difficult to know exactly who’s going to cherish it.

Score: 

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