2 Oct 2019

Review - Scary Stories

From At The Movies, 7:33 pm on 2 October 2019

Where do stories come from? In the case of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, they came from a popular series of books written by a chap called Alvin Schwartz.  

As the title suggests, the stories in the books are the sort of spooky tales that kids love to scare the bejeepers out of themselves with, particularly around Halloween.

But where did Alvin Schwartz get them from? Turns out he used to spend years researching ancient folklore and traditional tales, both at home in the States and in Europe, before compiling them in his books - and antagonising school librarians around the country.

And now producer Guillermo Del Toro has harnessed their power in the first movie of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.

Where I understand the book form is simply a collection of unrelated short, blood-curdling stories, Del Toro has constructed a narrative tying them together, as a group of teenagers set off on their probably final bit of Halloween trick-or-treating. 

Leader of the pack is would-be writer Stella. Her friends are Chuck, Auggie and newcomer Ramon.

And to add a little extra resonance to the narrative, Scary Tales is set in late 1960s Pennsylvania  – drive-in movies, President Nixon in ascendance, and the Vietnam War all over the TV.

On Halloween night, the gang go to the local haunted house, one-time home of the legendary Sarah Bellows. Even nearly 100 years later, Sarah’s notoriety precedes her.

Inside the old dark house, Stella stumbles on a mysterious, handwritten book. She leafs through it and sees chapters with titles like “The Dead Man’s Brains”, “The Cat’s Paw” and “The Ghost in the Mirror”. 

Like an idiot, Stella encourages the ghost of Sarah Bellows and lives to regret it. 

She takes the book home, only to discover it tends to have a mind of its own. Stories start to write themselves in it, often with familiar names in leading roles. People like local bully Tommy, who the next day goes missing.

Every night a new scary story, each one getting closer to home. And the monsters are well imagined – from the rangy and acrobatic, to the slow and inexorable, with a plague of spiders thrown in for people who don’t like that sort of thing.

The presence of producer/writer Guillermo Del Toro and Norwegian director André Øvredal - who made the creepy/funny Trollhunter - adds a certain assurance to the proceedings.

The backstory of Sarah Bellows holds the film together – and there’s even a timely, ecological message tucked in behind the gore.

The performances of the young cast are good – especially Zoe Margaret Coletti as Stella. And there’s a strong hint at a sequel at the end that, unusually, feels organic to the story, rather than just another bite at the cherry.

There are certainly enough loose ends around to justify a return, though my own enthusiasm for scary stories in the dark is pretty much exhausted by the first film.

But like most of the films this week, it’s better than it could have been, even if it’s not quite as good as the creators were hoping.

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