SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Andre Ovredal

Zoe Margaret Colletti and Michael Garza in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

This is a teen friendly horror film, much akin to the popular YA Goosebumps series. And like Goosebumps Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is derived from a popular series of books written by Alvin Schwartz and seems heavily inspired by the works of Stephen King, especially with its story of a group of misfit teens setting out to save their town from a malevolent spirit hellbent on wreaking vengeance for a perceived past wrong.

Stars: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Adams, Austin Zajur, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussant, Javier Botet.

Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti, from Annie) is an aspiring writer with an interest in the macabre. On Halloween she reluctantly agrees to go with her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). However the trio run afoul of local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams, from Brad’s Status, etc), and find refuge at the local drive-in, hiding in the car of Ramon Morales (Michael Garza, from Wayward Pines, etc), a hispanic drifter passing through town.

Stella and Ramon find an immediate connection because of their shared love of horror movies. Stella decides to show Ramon a piece of local history that involves a haunted house on the outskirts of town. The abandoned and dilapidated house belonged to the powerful Bellows family, who established the local mill that was once the lifeblood of the town. But the mill closed down nearly fifty years ago due to a controversy. The Bellows’ daughter Sarah was accused of poisoning many children and was committed to an asylum. She was then locked in the basement of the family mansion where she eventually hung herself.

Stella finds the room in which Sarah was locked away and also discovers her secret journal in which she wrote down several bloody horror stories about the town which have turned her tortured experience into fiction. But the book also seems possessed, and begins to write new chapters in blood. The new stories feature Stella’s friends, and play on the character’s deepest fears and secrets. The town bully meets his fate at the hands of a scarecrow that comes to life, a host of spiders burst out of a girl’s cheek, and shape changing creatures and malevolent spitits come forth to wreak havoc on the once sleepy little town.

As the body count slowly rises Stella and Ramon have to find a way to reverse the supernatural curse and save both the town and themselves.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark seems heavily inspired by the works of Stephen King, and in particular it comes across as something of a cross between It and Stranger Things. The screenplay has been written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (who wrote a couple of the later films in the Saw franchise, etc), and Dan and Kevin Hagerman (The Lego Ninjago Movie, etc), and produced under the auspices of Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape Of Water, etc), who knows a thing or two about horror films and dark tales.

The film is set in the small town of Mill Valley in 1968. Flickering black and white televisions in the background show the Vietnam war still raging, Richard Nixon on the way to winning the Presidency, and Night Of The Living Dead is screening at the local drive-in, all of which lends context to the backdrop for this tale of innocence lost and the changing landscape of America at the time. The films also explores themes of child abuse, intolerance, grief, friendship, history.

There are some good practical special effects and scary CGI generated creatures here that do justice to the illustrations from Stephen Gammell that informed the stories in the books. However, the film really offers up little that is particularly new or too scary, making it the perfect film for teens to dip their toes into the horror genre. The director is Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal (Troll Hunter, etc), who downplays the gore and darker imagery here as well. The cinematography from Roman Osin (who worked with Ovredal on The Autopsy Of Jane Doe) is evocative and claustrophobic and adds to the creepy aesthetic of the film.

The performances from the largely unkown younger cast are all fine, particularly Coletti and Garza who develop a strong chemistry. The cast also features Dean Norris (Under The Dome, etc) as Stella’s father, Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption, etc) as the local sheriff, and Javier Botet who again plays a creepy monster.

There is enough material left in Schwartz’s series of scary stories to provide a couple of sequels if this does well at the box office.

★★★☆

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