Director: André Øvredal
Cast: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Gabriel Rush, Natalie Ganzhorn, Gil Bellows, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris
As horror season approaches, we can start whetting our appetites with the spattering (pun intended) of scary movies coming our way. Although most of us are probably eagerly awaiting It Chapter 2, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark can be something of a precursor – an appetiser, if you will. Based on the book of the same name, a collection of tales by Alvin Schwartz, this Guillermo Del Toro-produced and co-written, André Øvredal (Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe)-directed teen horror has a lot in its favour. But horror is possibly one of the most, if not the most, arguably, difficult genres to get right – it’s so easy for jump scares to fall flat on their face, creatures to be so obviously CGI that they’re downright unterrifying, or dialogue to be so corny that it reduces a film to a B-horror status (which, granted, isn’t always a bad thing if a cult status can be earned). So, where does Scary Stories lie on the scale of send-me-to-sleep-zzzzzero to you-won’t-sleep-for-a-week-f-f-f-five?
It’s 1968, and a misfit bunch of teens find themselves exploring an old creaky house on Halloween night. Whilst exploring, Stella (Colletti), a keen writer and social outcast, discovers a book written by one of the house’s long-dead residents, Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). Stella takes the book home to read, and she soon finds the book starts to write brand new stories right in front of her eyes, stories that threaten those she knows, including her friends Chuck (Zajur), August (Rush), and new friend Ramone (Garza). As their minds and reality start to unravel, Stella and co must find a way to stop Sarah’s stories and put her spirit to rest once and for all.
If you’ve seen many horror films, you may note that the above premise isn’t exactly original for the genre, particularly teen horror. Honestly, this probably isn’t the scariest film you’ll see this year (or this side of the start of the millennium, truth be told), but there are plenty of elements that make it work as a horror.
Øvredal isn’t the most experienced director, with only a handful of films under his belt that vary in their appeal (Troll Hunter is excellent, Jane Doe is not), and he does play it safe overall. However it’s always brave (in some opinions) for a director to not score parts of a movie – the score is often used as a safety net for directors and filmmakers to be able to control audience reaction and feeling. But in horror, the lack of a score is one of the best things to do; the suspense it creates and the utter fear of the unknown derived from it is thrilling, and that’s something Øvredal gets exactly right a couple of times. And it doesn’t always end in a pathetic attempt at a jump scare either – a lot of the time, it’s a genuine fright. Also, possibly thanks to his work on Troll Hunter, Øvredal knows what he’s doing when it comes to visual effects and CGI characters – they are very well made and even terrifying. Something about them is also very akin to some Del Toro characters, making the Mexican filmmaker’s influence quite apparent.
Perhaps if Del Toro had had more of an influence on Scary Stories (such as directorial duties and/or a heavier hand on the screenplay) the story may have played out much darker than it ended up. Del Toro is well known for putting strong themes in his movies with visual representations that touch on innate fears within all of us (Pan’s Labyrinth will tell you all you need to know). This is keenly felt through the screenplay, as several characters have more depth and backstory than most characters would in horror movies. Something doesn’t quite gel, however – sometimes those backstories feel tacked to characters for the sake of giving them that depth. They feel flimsy in comparison to what we’d expect of a screenplay touched by Del Toro, but maybe that’s the problem: too many cooks touching a perfectly made souffle and causing it to collapse (there are a good handful of names linked to the story and screenplay). Left to his own devices, and even putting it into the Spanish language, could probably have made it at least one whole star better in its rating.
There’s nothing that hugely stands out from any of the young lead performances, nothing that makes them stand out amongst the pantheon of young horror actors, but that’s not to say they didn’t do their best with the material. Colletti’s performance, whilst at times verging on B-movie exaggerative, manages to stay in-line with the tone of the movie and without going too over the top. She’s a strong lead, but it would be good to see her in something more on the dramatic side in the future. To her credit, she holds her own amongst a fellow cast of boys (and one other girl) who don’t show anything particularly different to that which we see from the likes of the lads in It or Stranger Things – they’ve got the humour down, they’ve got the screaming and running down, but that’s about it because that’s about all they’re needed for. The adult performances are a good support for the younger ones (Bellows has his comedic moments as Chief Turner and Norris is quite endearing as Stella’s struggling single father Roy), but it is the teens that lead this movie.
As mentioned, this won’t be the best horror you’ll have seen in recent years, but it also won’t be the worst. The monsters are a decent scare, well-designed and executed for CGI, but being familiar with the source material probably helps at times when their existence becomes a little confusing (also, be sure to watch it in a properly darkened cinema. If there’s too much lighting you’ll struggle to see much of the movie, which is in darkness a lot of the time). The inclusion of Øvredal and Del Toro was a good move, particularly Del Toro, because without their influence this movie could easily have dropped to the bottom of the horror movie bargain bin. It’s not the best they’ve ever been involved in, probably thanks to the Hand of Hollywood™ clearly laying down the law, but we probably wouldn’t say no to a pure collaboration between the two of them on a future (and preferably Swedish or Spanish) project.