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

Death Wish (2018) movie review

For inSing

DEATH WISH (2018)

Director : Eli Roth
Cast : Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language And Violence)

Charles Bronson had a death wish all those years ago, and now Bruce Willis has one too. Willis picks up the mantle of Paul Kersey, Bronson’s most iconic character, in this remake of the 1974 film.

Bronson’s Paul Kersey was an architect; in this remake, the character is an emergency room surgeon instead. The good doctor’s world is torn apart when a brutal break-in to his house while he’s in the hospital leaves his wife Lucy Rose (Elizabeth Shue) dead, and their daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma. Taking matters into his own hands, Paul tracks down the perpetrators, leaving a bloody trail through Chicago. He becomes known as the ‘Grim Reaper’, attracting the attention of Detectives Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise). As Paul enacts his brand of vigilante justice, he becomes blind to the further consequences his actions might have.

The first Death Wish film was based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. A Death Wish remake has been in the works for a while – Sylvester Stallone first announced his intention to star in it in 2006. Joe Carnahan was attached to the project and wrote the script, but had an acrimonious falling out with the studio and disagreed vehemently with the choice of Bruce Willis as star. Gerardo Naranjo and the duo of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado then came and went, with Eli Roth finally taking the director’s seat.

This turns out to be a whole lot of trouble for nothing. The 2018 iteration of Death Wish is underwhelming and unintentionally funny. While the 1974 original was gritty and nasty, this remake doesn’t have much to say. In an attempt to update the premise, we get things like people posting memes of the Grim Reaper online. It’s all rote and pointless.

It’s not like there haven’t been any other vigilante revenge thrillers between the release of Death Wish V and now. Nearly every action star has been in a similar film, with Liam Neeson’s Taken series coming to mind. Then there are direct-to-DVD films like the John Travolta-starring I Am Wrath and the Antonio Banderas-starring Acts of Vengeance. There are hints that Death Wish might delve into the socio-political implications of modern day vigilante justice, but it treads no new ground.

Bruce Willis is a big part of why this doesn’t work. He’s appeared in mostly straight-to-video action films in recent years, and seems so checked out. The character’s extreme grief and rage never crystallises, and while Willis still has the residual action hero cred from the Die Hard films, Paul Kersey never registers as a real person.

Vincent D’Onofrio, who can be downright intimidating in the right roles, is awful as Paul’s younger brother Frank, coming off mostly as whiny and annoying. The two police detectives appear laughably incompetent, missing the most obvious clues to the Grim Reaper’s identity. The villains are generic thugs, and the female characters exist only to have horrible things happen to them to motivate the hero, just as in the source material.

Director Eli Roth is strongly associated with the horror genre, having helmed Hostel and its sequel. Roth loves his gore, and there are plenty of messy headshots and a particularly painful-looking DIY surgery scene. However, there’s a surprising lack of tension, and the film never generates real intensity. Perhaps this is a result of him being hired as a replacement, hence this feeling like work for hire.

Death Wish is the culmination of a huge amount of behind-the-scenes fuss that adds up to nothing much. While the involvement of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers ensures the film doesn’t look as cheap as Death Wish’s numerous direct-to-DVD brethren, both star Willis and director Roth seem like bad fits for this unnecessary reboot.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong