Whilst Andre Øvredal’s suburban Amblin-esque adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’ original book series of the same name leans heavily into familiar terror tropes, the Norwegian filmmaker pays astute homage to a disparate batch of old and new classics – from beloved coming-of-agers like Stand by Me and The Goonies through to the pure horror of Ringu, It and Final Destination – to seamlessly shape one of the most versatile anthologies to date. It’s so tightly constructed that it hardly even feels fitting to call it an anthology.
Set in the witching season of 1968, the film comes as a welcome reprieve, eschewing hi-tech twists and turns in favour of some of the more prominent horror tropes of the latter half of the 20th Century. Whereas the aforementioned Ringu combined supernatural elements with society’s anxieties about modern technology, Scary Stories takes a leaf out of Stephen King’s ‘It’, pitting a group of teenagers against an entity that targets them by documenting their various modes of dread in a book they happen across in a purportedly haunted house. This setup serves as the perfect portal for Øvredal to unleash some of the books’ most disturbing creatures on the real world. To put an end to the spate of serial killing stories the adolescents deep dive into the history of a girl named Sarah Bellows whose spirit they believe is writing the tales. It’s a narrative that immediately conjures up memories of Sadako/Samara and as patently boilerplate as that might sound, Øvredal is so tenaciously tuned into his source material that once the scary stories themselves are brought into the mix, the film becomes a different beast entirely, delivering a flawlessly-executed, absorbing and perfectly-paced adventure for both hardened horror fans and neophytes alike.
As many of you might be aware, although Schwartz’ books were always intended to serve as adolescent nightmare fuel, the film came under unwarranted social media fire when it received a PG-13 rating. But the good news for all the doubting Thomases is that, just as with his previous outing, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Øvredal once again showcases his dexterity when it comes to communicating anxiety and tension on the big screen and horror fans – both new and old – will have a field day once the film’s indescribably unsettling moments start to push that PG-13 for all it’s worth. Highlights include the film’s mascot, Harold the scarecrow, an as-always chilling Javier Botet floundering around in search of a simmering big toe, and the film’s culminating piece de resistance: a slightly modified version of the ‘Me Tie Dough-ty Walker’ story which introduces us to the only hybrid creature to appear in the movie, The Jangly Man. Designed to represent the traumas of drifter Ramón (Michael Garza), a character who lost his older brother to the Vietnam war, The Jangly Man’s ability to assemble his dismembered limbs at will, complemented with a cavalcade of wince-inducing bone-breaking sound effects that put Steven Seagal’s early action hits to shame absolutely slams the scariness home.
At the same time, Ramón’s trauma brings me to my only minor gripe. For a film that relies on exploiting its characters’ fears, much of the lead characters’ psychological baggage felt fleetingly skimmed over – particularly in the case of the two pivotal characters, Stella, a horror aficionado, aspiring writer with an obvious-yet-overlooked – narratively speaking – tormented childhood, and the aforementioned Ramón. At the same time, though, it felt like a deliberate move on the writers’ part as the film leaves the road wide open for a sequel and, should that come to fruition, it’ll undoubtedly delve much deeper into the protagonists’ demons of the past to give even more of Schwartz’ evil ghouls something to latch onto.
Ultimately, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not only the perfect primer for horror neophytes but efficiently delivers sufficient shudders to satisfy even the most demanding genre buffs out there. It might not boast the big-idea mojo of many of the horror movies it quarries, but what’s genuinely refreshing here is how cohesively the scary stories are interwoven into the main narrative of the film and how effectively illustrator Stephen Gammell’s unique, grotesque visual signature is brought to life. But even more importantly than all of that, the film is an always-welcome reminder of just how potent literature is in our lives. As Stella succinctly puts it, “[Stories] make us who we are. They have such power.” And if it hasn’t already, the film’s success will undoubtedly not only motivate audiences to seek out Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro’s source material, but maybe even turn “anti-readers” into gung-ho bookworms and/or aspiring writers.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in cinemas now