Scary stories to tell in the dark
review by hugh whelan
André Øvredal’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark follows a group of high-school teens on Halloween night of 1968, who unwittingly disturb the ancient ghost of Sarah Bellows while exploring an old abandoned house. The gang must work against the clock to solve the mystery of Sarah’s past, before she dooms their fate by writing them into her book of horror tales. Based on the 1980s series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz, the books were celebrated for their gruesome style and reached cult-classic status, setting a high bar of expectation for anyone making a film adaptation.
The film succeeds in providing a classic horror tale against the backdrop of the Nixon-era United States, but for horror fans looking for more than just classic clichés and jump-scares, the film fails to impress. The filmmakers appear to have jumped on the same eighties nostalgia train as the creators of Strangers Things, but without any of the originality that the Duffer brothers are lauded for.
Following the teens through their misadventures around their high school and small town, Øvredal does provide commendable action sequences with some genuine scary moments. These set pieces are the films core strength – borrowing the monsters from Schwartz’s original books, there are some horrifically tense scenes as during each night the events of a different story play out. The ghosts and the monsters such as the “Jangly Man” are terrifying, original, and the visual effects are flawless.
However, action sequences aside, the film is a mixed jumble of clichés that attempts to be too many things at once, with the effect that the characters and plot lines become incoherent and unmemorable. While the horror taken from Schwartz’s original stories shines, the film’s scarier moments are let down by the framing device and surrounding plot written to fit the stories into. Subplots, such as Ramón’s Hispanic background and Stella’s traumatic past, are introduced but never properly resolved. Bar a commendably funny performance from Austin Zajur as Chuck, the performances across the board feel stifled and underwhelming. It’s not that there is a lack of talent on-screen, but rather that this talent isn’t being properly utilised by the director. It is no wonder that it is Guillermo Del Toro’s name rather than Øvredal’s that is plastered across the film’s promotional material, in what appears to be an underhanded attempt to increase the film’s veritability.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is an entertaining horror movie that is ultimately let down by the dull nature of its non-scary moments. In the last few years directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster have raised the bar in terms of contemporary horror. They have illustrated that while cliché is an instrumental element in horror filmmaking, it should not overwhelm or excuse a lack of originality in the telling of a classic horror story. Øvredal delivers a mediocre film that is at times scary but overall, forgettable.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is currently screening in cinemas across Ireland.