Based on a cult series of children’s books that spooked those lucky/unlucky enough to read them, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark unites one-man horror factory Guillermo Del Torro and Troll Hunter director André Øvredal to bring some of these tales to the big screen.
The original books written by Alvin Schwartz and (and incredibly) illustrated by Stephen Gammell was something that snuck past me in 1981 (give me a break, I was six) but obtained quite the following for the suprising levels of creepiness contained within and the frankly knockout interior art that veers frequently into the nightmarish. In fact the three volumes released between ’81 and ’91 did their job SO well that they were constantly in hot water with various, do-gooder, groups trying to get them removed from schools or outright banned.
The movie, thanks to an inconsistent tone, isn’t likely to expect such troubles – but to fans of the literature it will invoke many gooey feelings of nostalgia thanks to impressively accurate creature designs and numerous Easter eggs that virtually no one else will get and so the uninitiated may wonder what all the fuss is about.
It’s 1968, it’s Halloween in the town of Mill Valley and Stella, Auggie and Chuck, a trio of weirdo, nerd and joker stereotypes, are trick or treating only to fall foul of the local bully. Fleeing through a drive in cinema they meet up with young drifter Ramòn who immediately sparks a connection with the horror obsessed Stella and gives them shelter from the baseball wielding asshole and his friends. As a way to say thanks, the gang take Ramón to the town’s resident haunted house where it’s rumoured that young Sarah Bellows, was locked up by her rich town founder family, went insane and wrote various scary stories which somehow led to the disappearance of various children who heard them. Finding Sarah’s story book in a hidden room, Stella takes it home to read only to find out that the spooky tales that manifest themselves in the pages become real and various otherworldly things start claiming the people around her in a selection of creepy scenarios.
SSTTIND plays somewhat like if Goosebumps was directed by James Wan with episodic adventures featuring an adolescent group of characters but instead of goofy werewolves and prat-falling yetis, we have some suprisingly inventive and hard-core supernatural entities culling the cast list in effective, if repetitive ways. The looming antagonists like Harold The Killer Scarecrow, the vengeful digit missing zombie from “The Big Toe” and the horde of spiders lurking inside an oversized zit are effective and cool but it’s the cooing, bloated, bone-white apparition from The Dream and the taffy jointed, collapsible Jangly Man who pursues the remaining characters in the climax who take the cake for the best of the supernatural bunch but wherever the stalk and scare tactics are sidelined, the film tends to drag. The characters just really aren’t that interesting until the film puts them in mortal peril and any attempts to flesh them out (Ramòn’s half hearted link to the Vietnam War for example) come across as ineffective and dead weight.
The problem seems to stem mainly that maybe Scary Stories should have been presented as a more traditional anthology film along the lines of Creepshow or more modern attempts like V/H/S and not try to link everything as one big film as after a while everything gets to be a little samey.
Too harsh for kids and too childish for more hardcore horror aficionados, Scary Stories is an entertaining question mark of a movie which is genuinely uncertain as to who exactly it’s trying to cater for and ultimately suffers because of it.
Cool story, bro.