Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark review

For inSing

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

Director: André Øvredal
Cast : Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 48 mins
Opens : 15 August 2019
Rating : NC16

            We’ve heard the expressions that stories can be powerful, but it’s a figure of speech. In this horror movie, stories have literal, dark power, as a group of friends find their lives upended by a cursed book of spooky tales.

It is 1968, and in the town of Mill Valley, there is a local legend: a mansion on the outskirts of town is haunted by the spirit of a young girl who killed herself there almost a hundred years ago. On the night of Halloween, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), August (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) meet stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) at a drive-in movie. They are pursued by the bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), and they all find themselves in the mansion.

There, Stella comes across a book in which Sarah Bellows, the young girl in the myth, wrote horror stories. New stories appear to be written by themselves, as Stella and her friends are targeted by the otherworldly monsters that feature in said stories. Stella, August, Chuck and Ramon must unravel the mystery behind who Sarah Bellows was to save themselves from her deadly stories.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on the series of children’s books by Alvin Schwartz. The first volume was published in 1981, and they are akin to the Goosebumps books but for slightly older readers. The books were known for their haunting, nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell, which were replaced with new illustrations by Brett Helquist in the 2011 edition.

When it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would produce and possibly direct an adaptation of the books, it seemed like a good fit because of the director’s imaginative take on the horror genre.

Del Toro is credited with co-writing the screen story and as a producer, with André Øvredal directing. The Norwegian Øvredal directed Trollhunters and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows in the current resurgence of live-action horror-tinged adventure stories starring kids, like Stranger Things and It: Chapter One – this can arguably be traced back to 2011’s Super 8, which was itself patterned after films E.T. and The Goonies. Unlike those other films and TV shows, the setting is the 60s rather than the 80s, complete with Nixon references.

While Scary Stories is a largely well-made movie that isn’t as cheesy or goofy as it could’ve been, it faces the conundrum of how scary a horror movie that is aimed at kids should be. Scary Stories often finds itself stuck in the awkward position of being too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults. The film is rated NC16 in Singapore but is rated PG13 in the US. This is of course considering that ‘scariness’ is subjective. The movie has more on its mind than the typical teen-aimed jump scare fest but struggles a bit with being consistently thrilling and entertaining.

Scary Stories does get a lot right – structurally, framing the individual stories with the device of a cursed book and the mystery of that book’s author prevents the film from feeling as episodic and disjointed as it could have. However, because the movie draws on multiple stories, some are noticeably stronger than others.

The film’s creature design is a mixed bag – a few of the monsters seem generic, but a few are ingenious and inspired, with one that both stays close to the original Gammell illustration and bears the hallmarks of a del Toro-influenced design. A lot of the practical makeup effects work is great, but the more obviously computer-generated monsters lose a bit of their scariness, even if the visual effects used to create them are technically competent.

Zoe Colletti’s Stella is a sympathetic and sensitive lead character. As a girl who’s a horror fan and aspiring writer in the 1960s, Stella is an outcast who finds solace in horror movies and novels. Having a writer as the protagonist in a movie about stories is one demonstrate of the film’s thematic awareness.

Michael Garza is handsome, but ultimately comes off as too innately decent to be convincing as the mysterious bad boy from out of town.

Gabriel Rush’s August is the voice of reason, while Austin Zajur’s Chuck is the deliberately annoying prankster character. There are attempts to make them more than the archetypes they stand in for, but the slasher movie mentality of the characters just being there to get picked off does creep in.

Austin Abrams’ Tommy does some despicable things, but Abrams himself is not sufficiently intimidating as the jock bully.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has just enough of a del Toro touch to it to set it apart from the typical horror movie aimed at the younger set and it is driven by an affection for and appreciation of the book. While it is doubtful than any adults will find it truly frightening, it is wont to give kids a nightmare or two.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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