Directed by: André Øvredal Starring: Zoe Colletti,Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush,Austin Zajur Runtime: 108 mins
With much of the summer’s horror focus on the highly anticipated It: Chapter 2, it was always going to take something special to divert the audiences’ attention from the second adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller. Despite Guillermo del Toro’s involvement as producer, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark didn’t garner as much buzz as this summer’s other horror blockbusters enjoyed. It wouldn’t be fair to call this a debut from Norwegian director André Øvredal, with the mildly received but competently made The Autopsy of Jane Doe attached to his name in 2016. However, it is fair to say that this is the first time the director has been tested in a way that may definitively shape his future horror filmography.
Although Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark won’t please everyone, Øvredal passes this test with flying colours. While some themes and characters are clearly rooted in the iconography of both classical and contemporary horror franchises, the story here is original and committed to its purpose. Of course, part of that purpose has to be scaring audiences, and it does this in all the ways that scary stories are supposed to do along with its own unique brand. Initially, the title and premise invoke memories of horror anthologies like 1982’s Creepshow and perhaps more recently the low budget VHS series. With a group of kids involved, there’s an assumption that what we’re about to see is a dusting off of an old book and a subsequent revelation of a compilation of old terror tales. This was effectively what 2017’s Ghost Stories attempted, and while it yielded some positive feedback, I found it underwhelming.
This film is bold in that it inculcates what would otherwise be considered generic and mundane horror templates and makes it interesting, supporting it with a subversive plot that intertwines numerous spooky tales with its characters. What we ultimately get is a blend of nightmare fuel and an impressive coming of age story. Crucially, it’s a coming of age story that invests you in the lives and personalities of its teenage characters. Things start off in the Pennsylvanian town of Mill Valley on Halloween night in 1968, where a small group of teens pre-emptively get back at local bully Tommy. The ensuing scuffle leads the kids to the creepy haunted house, formerly occupied by the influential Bellows family. Upon entering the premises, they come across a “scary stories” book which belonged to the daughter Sarah Bellows, now etched out of all family photographs. After a few unsettling events involving both a conflict with the bullies and an encounter with the spiritual presence of the house, they get out, taking the book with them. Slowly but surely, the book’s terrifying capabilities are revealed.
The acting from the teenage cast is committed and believable. This is not only important from a “scare” point of view, but also because the events here are deeply character driven. The main character is aspiring horror writer Stella, played by the impressive Zoe Colletti. Stella clearly has complex and lasting family issues, and this is gradually but not completely teased out, in part by a nuanced and delicate performance by Dean Norris. Norris is perhaps even underused in a role that could have elicited his talent more usefully.
Stella and her friends are important to how Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ultimately unfolds. To this end, the opening stage of the film spends time and effort getting you acquainted with them, and this is effort that pays off in later parts. In many ways, the setting here is nothing new. It’s a funny thing that it’s been released just before Andrés Muschietti’s It sequel, because there’s a lot in common between the two. There’s the troubled small town that seems somewhat isolated from a changing America. There’s also all of the archetypes that you’d expect. The racist bullies, the girl hanging out with the guys, the overcompensating funny kid, and mysterious fathers. In addition, there’s a mythology that has its roots in the town and is inextricably linked to its citizens.
While this might seem derivative, it’s actually one of the most impressive things about the film. It contextualises the story so well, by strictly adhering to the timeline and turbulent environment that not only the town but America itself found itself in. It alludes to the Vietnam War and uses it to structure the character development of the charming but enigmatic Ramon, played by Michael Garza. It draws out the incoming presidency of Richard Nixon with a sense of foreboding that really fits the narrative, and almost uses it as a motif that ushers along the main story and its movement. This gives it a kinetic feel that lasts throughout. The actual “scary” stories are scary too. Progressively scary. Not only does each sequence offer up original and terrifying characters that could only have been conceived through nightmares, but they’re presented with a level of technical competence that you don’t often see in horror nowadays. If you have a gag reflex, some scenes will test it, and these effects complement some stellar acting throughout.
The film is also aware of the fact that it’s ok to be funny while being scary. While this is a delicate balance to achieve without undermining the horror part, it’s important to execute, and there are some great laughs that serve as a much needed palate cleansers in between the spooks. If there’s some downfalls, it leans on jump scares a few times too many. Apart from being a tired exercise in horror, it’s just not necessary in light of the substance on offer. In addition, Dean Norris perhaps should have been more engaged with the subject matter. He steals each scene he’s in, but these scenes are very much on the periphery, and serve only to develop Stella and her coming of age journey. His filmography boasts a seasoned and versatile father figure on screen, with performances in Breaking Bad and The Book of Henry showcasing why this role was made for him. While there’s a feeling that more could be done here, what is done is executed in a poignant and effective way.
Ultimately, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a wonderful experience that makes you care about its story. It looks great, scares often and whatever fans of the book series may feel about its loyalty to the literary subject matter, it’s an undeniably appealing adaptation that justifies its notable presence in an already busy summer for horror.(4 / 5)