Movie Review: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’

Director: André Øvredal

Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Javier Botet

Plot: Whilst exploring a so-called haunted house at the centre of local myths a group of teenagers find a book and horror stories. Unfortunately the myths have an element of truth and the book has deadly powers.

Review: So Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a…book series, I think? Yeah, this carries a strong nostalgia pull for many but it never made it to this corner of the world. I only know it by reputation. I know they’re collections of short stories and that they’ve got some real nightmare inducing illustrations. Beyond that, this is my first exposure to what I perceived as a step up from the Goosebumps series. And like that pair of movies, they simply do not know how to adapt this.

It’s called an anthology. I know they don’t get much mainstream cinema attention, but you’re going to wind up doing it a disservice.

Much like Goosebumps (and Goosebumps 2, I guess…they had the same plot), this is a movie about the book itself, although in a more roundabout manner. Stella, Auggie and Chuck (Colletti, Garza and Zajur) are a trio of outcasts making their own fun on Halloween, scooping up the mysterious Ramón (Garza) on the way to a boarded up old house. It’s here that we learn of the Bellows Family, wealthy mill owners who kept their daughter Sarah imprisoned in the basement from where she’d tell local children scary stories through the wall. As the story goes, anyone who heard these stories would disappear.

There’s no actual proof to this story, until the gang locate the hidden basement and a book of Sarah’s spooky tales. Stella takes this book and they soon learn that new stories will appear in the book, describing supernatural events that take place in the real world. As various creatures manifest and hunt them the friends need to find a way to quieten the angry ghost of Sarah Bellows.

What makes up the core of the film is six strung together encounters that include a living scarecrow, spider eggs and a shambling corpse with a missing toe. This format could be well handled if they were divided up in an overlapping manner that provides adequate time for set-up and delivering a satisfying climax. Either that, or go to the opposite extreme and make it a collection of short films like Treat or Treat. Instead they tried to set-up each individual tale and wrap it up entirely one after the other whilst following a routine mystery adventure. Perhaps this could be resolved if they took on less stories, because the pacing is the most horrifying part of this tale.

To give an example, the teens are on their way to talk to an insightful old person. As they approach the door one of them says, apropos of nothing, that he has a recurring nightmare about a pale woman in a red room. In the next scene they encounter this very thing. The foreshadowing must’ve all taken place as noon because they do not extend out very far.

This movie is a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. It’s got a strong budget and art team behind it, and they’ve had a lot of fun with the creature design. It’s just a shambles of a script that mostly came from a lack of restraint. You don’t need every popular story from the series, just start with a couple.

Rating: FOUR out of TEN