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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark review
A group of teens unwittingly unleash supernatural forces in their small town.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: André Øvredal

Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Natalie Ganzhorn

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark dvd

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a big screen adaptation of the cult series of children's books penned by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The books didn't make much impact on this side of the Atlantic, but in the US they caused quite a stir. Drawing on urban legends and American folklore, Schwartz crafted a series of short stories whose gruesome nature, along with Gammell's vivid illustrations, thrilled young readers. Parents, on the other hand, weren't so enthused, with many busybody groups attempting to have the books removed from the American library system, claiming they were corrupting the minds of their innocent little darlings.

Of course, nothing in a horror story is as scary as real life, and down the centuries, horror stories have been used as a way of preparing children for the grim realities they may have to face in their later (or sooner, depending on their level of privilege) lives. And as kids grow up, they inevitably learn the truth that the monster is rarely as scary as the torch-wielding mob.

scary stories to tell in the dark review

This idea seems to provide the starting point for this big screen take on Schwartz's books, directed by André Øvredal and suspiciously written by enough screenwriters to field a five-a-side football team, including producer Guillermo del Toro. Taking us back to 1968 and spanning the period from Halloween night to the election of Richard Nixon, Scary Stories takes place in Mill Valley, a small Pennsylvania town where hatred brims beneath and above the surface.

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Not the best place for a young Latino drifter to spend time in perhaps, but that's what Rámon (Michael Garza) foolishly does, immediately drawing unwanted attention from the local sheriff (Gil Bellows) and a gang of jocks, who spray paint his car with a derogatory phrase. Rámon is befriended by three nerdy local kids who feel as out of place in Mill Valley as he does - horror loving wannabe writer Stella (Zoe Colletti) and geeky pranksters Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush). When the foursome explore a decrepit local mansion, now rumoured to be haunted, they discover a book of short horror tales, which seems to predict the demise of local kids, including our protagonists. The race is on to find a way to stop the book's reign of terror before they all succumb to death at the hands of the malevolent supernatural force they've brought to life.

scary stories to tell in the dark review

1968 was undoubtedly a scary time to live in America, particularly if you found yourself stuck in a small town with less than enlightened views, but there's something smugly contemptuous and elitist about the scorn Øvredal and his army of writers pour on Middle America. It's also quite hypocritical, as the bigotry of its caricature racist sheriff and thuggish jocks is reflected by the film itself, which offers us such harmful stereotypes as a magical Negro, a blonde bimbo and a lock-picking, switchblade-wielding Latino. If Scary Stories wants to teach its target young audience a lesson about inclusion and acceptance, it has a very confusing way of doing so.

The period setting too often serves as little more than dressing to disguise lazy storytelling tropes - having your protagonists look at micro-fiche or listen to a recording on a gramophone is no more interesting for the viewer than having them log onto a search engine. Every now and then Nixon will appear on a TV set and someone will remind us how hated he is, but we all know Tricky Dicky is just a stand-in for another president, so why not have the balls to take on Trump directly? Oh yes, of course, the film wants to sell tickets to the Deplorables it mocks.

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Scary Stories suffers heavily from arriving in the slipstream of two recent hits - Stephen King adaptation It and Netflix series Strangers Things - both of which it's desperately struggling to imitate, with kids traversing their small town on bikes while battling an evil the grown-ups won't acknowledge, and Colletti's Stella is almost indistinguishable from the character Sophia Lillis essayed in It. Had it been made five years ago it likely would have adopted a Creepshow style anthology format rather than the awkward weaving of Schwartz's short stories into the dull procedural narrative it ultimately opts for.

scary stories to tell in the dark review

Øvredal's set-pieces are diverting enough, and will no doubt please budding young fright fans, but you have to sit through an awful lot of dull exposition while you wait for the next creature to appear. Jarring with the film's 1960s Americana setting, said monsters bear the influence of J-horror, all spindly limbs and slow-moving meanies that creep up on our young heroes despite their best efforts to escape.

As is seemingly the case with every movie Hollywood greenlights today, Scary Stories desperately wants to kickstart a franchise, as evidenced by the film's frustratingly open ending. With a total of 82 short stories across Schwartz's three books, there's certainly plenty of material on hand, but if we're to get further instalments, they'll need to find a way to replicate the dangerous thrill young readers enjoyed from Schwartz's tales.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is on Netflix UK/ROI now.