Milking the It and Stranger Things market mercilessly, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a surprisingly successful young adult fright fest. Based on the 1981 anthology book of the same name by Alvin Schwart, and directed by André Øvredal, the film makes good on the promise of its title with impressive visuals and remarkable restraint. On one level, the film struggles to overcome its predictably episodic narrative. On another, Øvredal succeeds in weaving through higher notions and smarter themes. Fundamentally, likeable leads allow for a predominance of humanity.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Guillermo del Toro is the film’s producer. The Shape of Water director’s fingerprints gleam all over Scary Stories. They’re on the viscerality of the film’s prosthetic design, the lush depth of Roman Osin’s cinematography – first golden then misty -and the fairytale impetus of the story he himself crafted with Saw stalwarts Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. There’s perhaps influence here too from Goosebumps, with R. L. Stine’s books a contemporary to the Schwart’s later scary stories. Certainly, Del Toro and company overlap their interpretation of their original text with that of Rob Letterman’s recent kid horror adaptation. Here also a dozen short tales find unity via the device of an in-context authored book, that of Ringu-esque femme fatal Sarah Bellows. Her harrowing history finds revelation, typically, in only the climax of the film but her rage strikes far sooner.
When teen trio Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) pull a prank on local bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams), their escape drops them in the path of drifting visitor Ramón Morales (Michael Garza). It’s Halloween night, 1968, in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley and adventure’s afoot. Having survived Tommy’s clutches, the three lead Ramón to the old, abandoned Belllows mansion for a haunted lark and uncover the secret room in which Sarah was once trapped by her devilish family. As legend has it ‘if you come to the Belllows house at dark and ask Sarah to tell you a story it’ll be the last story you ever hear.’
Naturally, not only does Stella find Sarah’s decrepit old storybook – written in blood for good measure – but she takes it with her for bedtime reading. Of course she does. This is, in the grand tradition of horror, a woeful error of judgement. It’s not long before new stories are writing themselves within and coming true: ‘You don’t read the book, the book reads you.’ All should fear their name appearing by Sarah’s pen, with an early horrid fate being matched by consistently mean outcomes. Crucially, no one is safe. The tension rises.
Not without its fair share of cliched derivation, Scary Stories does at least balance the over familiar – a music box and freewheeling tape – with ample novelty. Schwart’s enduring stories, drawn from campfire spookers and folk hand-me-downs, are precision executed by Øvredal with a strong sense for crawling terror and he does well to play for the long game over immediate, unsatisfying jump scares. Monsters pace painfully slowly towards long shot lenses at distance, whilst threats are not always revealed until it is too late for our heroes to escape. Particularly memorable is the scene in which Chuck’s elder sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) succumbs to the red spot, only to have spiders erupt from her cheek en masse. It’s grisly, spine curdling stuff and great fun for those who like their horror to crawl well beneath the skin before providing the sting. A pity only that these furious peaks suffer an interlinking narrative not quite so inventive. The atmosphere is far less viscous here than in Del Toro’s solo Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance.
Nonetheless, Scary Stories remains a surprising success. A backdrop of political and personal distress – this being the era of Nixon, Vietnam and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – does well to tap into a wider, more intelligent context than the average modern day horror and there’s even a fair stab at understanding the human will to engage in the indulgence of fear. This may not quite be a classic but it is a worthy and admirable effort. Better still, it’s frights are genuine and really do linger.