Alvin Schwartz’s ‘Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark’ made waves in the 80s, introducing a generation of teens to spooky urban myths, legends and classic campfire stories. The twisted stories, which were banned by The American Library Association in the 1990s, are now making their debut on the big screen under the talented direction of Norwegian André Øvredal.
While the original stories are self-contained short stories, Øvredal has pulled the goriest, spookiest stories together under the overarching plot of a few friends stumbling across a cursed book that unleashes unimaginable horrors on them.
We’re introduced to young writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her lovable best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) on Halloween night, 1968. The three friends have concocted a plan to get back at their bullies, but their plan backfires and the trio is forced to seek refuge at a drive-in. Hiding in dreamy draft-dodger Ramón’s (Michael Garza) car, Stella suggests that they take their saviour to the town’s haunted mansion for a Halloween treat.
The house originally belonged to one of the founding families of the town, who kept their child-killer daughter Sarah locked in the basement. When Stella steals Sarah’s book of handwritten stories, she unknowingly seals herself and her friend’s frightful fates. Stella quickly realises that “You don’t read the book. The book reads you.” Written in blood, new stories appear in the book featuring her friends as the unlucky subjects of the tales. It’s a race against time to ensure they don’t all end up as the victim in their own personal horror story.
This perhaps is the scariest part of the film – knowing what is going to happen to a character before it happens. The anticipation is nerve-racking, particularly in the first few instances. However, as the film progresses it settles into this pattern of revealing the horror before it is actualised and it starts to lose its edge. The stories themselves hark back to traditional ghost stories and viewers raised on more modern horror films may not get the fear-jolting experience they are expecting. Similarly, those not familiar with the original source material may struggle to join some dots.
There are some delightfully gory scenes of spiders crawling out of faces and a grotesque soup made from human body parts that will have your stomach churning. The CGI creatures conjured from Sarah’s storybook are well-rendered, imaginative and will send chills down your spine – especially Harold the scarecrow.
Contextually, the film is clever. The horror the children face is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. High-schoolers are drafted into the army, Nixon is on the TV campaigning for the presidency and the radio makes quip remarks about the brutal war unfolding on the other side of the world. It suggests that there is more than one type of horror in this world, and the supernatural scares the kids have accidentally stumbled upon may not be the real horror story at all.
Although it’s good for a few jump-scares in a dark cinema, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark won’t have you spooking at shadows on your walk home.
The musical theme that plays throughout the film is “The Hearse Song,” which is another story from the books.