Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ★★★☆☆

From 1981 to 1991, author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell terrified youngsters with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. As of 2017, the books had collectively sold more than 7,000,000 copies and appeared on numerous children's’ best-seller lists, not to mention being hailed as a “cultural touchstone for a generation”. Some parent and social groups have argued they are inappropriate for children, as they are certainly more disturbing than Goosebumps for example. The nightmarish illustrations from Gammell and themes of murder, cannibalism and disfigurement have been labelled “repulsive” and “sick” – but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, as the series continues to sell to this day – and now, Hollywood has sunk their claws in…

Directed by Trollhunter’s André Øvredal, this big-screen adaptation is a surprisingly effective little shocker.

The shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large in the small town of Mill Valley for generations. It's in a decrepit mansion that young Sarah Bellows turns her tortured life and horrible secrets into a series of scary stories, which acts as a framing device to adapt several of the titular ‘scary stories’ into one film. These terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real for a group of unsuspecting teens who stumble upon Sarah's spooky home. Thankfully, the film is not structured as an anthology film – instead, each of the stories come to life throughout the adventure of one group of characters. Surprisingly, the human cast is actually well-written and well-performed characters that do give the film an added level of quality akin to the recent IT adaptation. Horror is always more effective if you care about the characters.

Producer Guillermo del Toro opted against the anthology format, stating at 2019 Comic-Con “anthology films are always as bad as the worst story in them — they're never as good as the best story”. With del Toro acting as a producer on the film, you know what you’re in for – spooky, gothic chills. And they are certainly delivered in abundance; this cinematic adaptation of the iconic stories certainly has some harrowing visual shocks up its sleeve. There is a looming sense of dread and discomfort throughout the stories, but there is a caveat. But like almost all modern horror, the film does let itself down with an over-reliance on jump scares that detract from the overall feeling of dread and horror. But at the end of the day, this is an adaptation of a children’s book so the scares are not going to be as intense as they’d be in something like Hereditary. If nothing else, Scary Stories serves as a gateway into the horror genre for younger viewers, crafting an effective horror film that may be light on gore and violence but is certainly high on fear.

Vastly superior to the Jack Black-starring Goosebumps films, which are of course aimed at an even younger audience, Scary Stories shows that horror can be accessible to a younger crowd with a strong filmmaker behind the lens. Proving again that creaky floorboards and dark corridors are scarier than CGI beasties and jump scares, this traditional delivery does make for an enjoyable little romp – even if the CGI and jumps do make one too many appearances here. On the whole, this is really an introduction to horror for younger audiences but there is still enough to enjoy here for older and more discerning horror fans. There is something for everyone in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and if this is only the beginning of a new horror franchise, I’m excited to see what we get in Part II. 

Sam Love

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