Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Based on the iconic book series.

Nobody gets into horror as an adult, generally speaking — the hook gets set when we’re kids. Part of the appeal is the taboo — seeing something we’re not supposed to be seeing, feeling the struggle between our curiosity and our revulsion, our compulsion, and our fear. ‘Kid-friendly horror’ feels like something of a contradiction in terms, given that the whole point of the exercise for emerging horror fans is seeing stuff we really shouldn’t be allowed to see.

But there’s a place for that little subgenre. It serves a purpose, even if it’s just a compromise between a parent who thinks their suddenly spooky sprog should be satisfied with The Angry Birds Movie (2016) and a kid with their heart set on The Hills Have Eyes (2006). And so here comes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a children’s chiller with a pretty impressive pedigree, to hopefully satisfy both sides of that hypothetical argument.

Be careful what you read.

Based on the well-regarded book trilogy by writer Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark comes to us courtesy of Norwegian director André Øvredal, Troll Hunter (2010), and Mexican producer Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water (2017). The original books are collections of very short O. Henry-style horror stories, and thus the film version is a kind of semi-anthology film, pulling several of the original tales into a framing narrative. Our setting is the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, the year is 1968, it’s Halloween, and three teenagers are about to discover the creepy things that lurk in the shadowed corners of their sleepy little burg.

Budding horror author Stella (Zoe Colletti) already has a taste for the macabre, whilst her best buds Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are more or less along for the ride, and more than happy to get some payback on local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). Fleeing Tommy’s vengeance along with drifter Ramón (Michael Garza), who they connect with at a drive-in screening of George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (the film is packed with such nods) they decide to check out the town’s most notorious landmark, a reputedly haunted mansion.

‘There once was a haunted house …’

This being a horror movie, that reputation is well-earned, and Stella is soon in possession of the film’s MacGuffin, a cursed book of scary stories. The conceit is that the stories in the book come to life, each one targeting a different victim. Stella and the gang need to figure out how to stop this, which means investigating the book’s roots, and the real secrets hiding behind the urban legend of its origins. And away we go.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a mixed bag, and somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Some of the scenarios that play out, like The Red Spot, in which an insect bite on a girl’s face splits open to pout forth a boiling horde of baby spiders, are simply bravura, and should give even the most jaded kids a few nights of troubled sleep. Similarly, the sequence where the oafish Tommy — who in his leather jacket and red hair comes across like an evil version of Archie Andrews — is stalked by a malevolent scarecrow is fantastic.

However, the pacing is way off, especially for a film of only 108 minutes’ duration. For all that the threat of the book spewing forth some new abominable horror is ever-present, there’s a weird lack of urgency to the proceedings, and also no impending sense of doom that a deliberate pace could bring to a horror narrative. Things just kind of keep happening until they stop — but not before leaving a big sequel hooking dangling over the end credits.

This is an evil place …

Still, the young cast are game and charismatic, Øvredal knows both how to build atmosphere and deploy a jump scare, and the creature designs are just brilliant, walking right up to the edge of ‘actually disturbing’ without crossing over into ‘future conversation with a therapist’ territory. It’s all pretty bloodless, but then we all know that blood isn’t the vital ingredient to childhood trauma it’s cracked up to be — there’s plenty to be scared of here without spilling claret.

Thematically, the whole thing hangs on the importance of being able to tell our own stories in our own way. The central mystery is pretty standard scary movie boilerplate but still worth discovering in the course of watching the film, so I won’t spill the beans here except to say that the identity of the author of the magical book is the key, and the ultimate reveal is satisfying without being earth-shattering.

I can’t say the same for the period setting, which feels like an attempt to pick up some of the nostalgic goodwill that Stranger Things (2016-19) and its imitators thrive on — and perhaps to make sure mobile phones and similar technology don’t scupper the plot. The Vietnam War casts a fairly long shadow over the proceedings, and a bit of business is made about young men going off the join the army and never coming home, but it never connects meaningfully with the main action of the narrative.

The cornfields are calling.

Things fare better on a more granular level, with each victim contending with a monster that is basically their fears made manifest: the vain girl’s (Natalie Ganzhorn) face is disfigured by spiders, a young man desperate to get out of town winds up turned into a scarecrow and rooted to the spot forever, while another character traumatized by their brother coming home from ‘Nam ‘in pieces’ is stalked by a beast that can disassemble itself at will — The Jangly Man.

‘On a more granular level’ is the best way to enjoy Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. While not the slam dunk that it perhaps ought to have been, given the esteem in which both the source collections and the key creatives are held in, nonetheless it’s got enough going on to keep baby horror hounds enthralled, and that’s the important thing. Genre fans with more notches on their belts might be unimpressed, but it’s important to remember who this one is for and let them have it — they’ll be asking about Carpenter and Craven before too long.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is released through Universal Pictures Australia