Ah, Halloween. It’s the time of year you can expect trick-or-treating, Starbucks’ pumpkin spice lattes, and scary films. In recent years, Hollywood studios have come to rely on this time of year as easy fodder with cash from the movie-going public, but it really depends how you like your horror; if you like a lot of jump scares and gore, you’re usually in good stead. The 2019 Halloween season sees the release of ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’, which offers promise with its source material and the attachment of Guillermo del Toro - but is it more terrifying or tiresome?
It’s 1968 in the United States. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti, ‘Annie’, ‘Wildlife’), Chuck (Austin Zajur, ‘Fist Fight’) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) are out on Halloween when they meet new kid in town, Ramón (Michael Garza, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’, TV’s ‘Wayward Pines’). To get their scares, they decide to visit the local haunted house, the former home of Sarah Bellows. Years earlier, the legends say, her family were said to keep her locked up because she was different, so she would tell her scary stories to the local kids through the wall - that is, until kids started to die. Folklore says that Sarah hung herself, and when Stella finds her book of scary stories and takes it home, Sarah returns to seek revenge by writing their deaths and bringing about their final chapters.
Based on a series of short stories, this is a film squarely aimed at the tween and teen movie-going market. With a smattering of swear words, minimal gore and little more than a few jump scares, there’s not much to genuinely appeal to horror fans. It’s a tame dose of terror, with a predictable plot that lacks any surprises or charm.
Structurally, the film bears many similarities to ‘Goosebumps’ and its leap to the big screen. ‘Scary Stories’ also gathers a collection of its tales and structures a plot and characters around these. As a construct, it’s not overly successful; even when creeping through the haunted house, there are lengthy portions of exposition where the history of Sarah is explained, even though the golden rule of any visual medium is show, don’t tell. And that’s the difference between stories and movies - what might seem terrifying sitting around a campfire with the black nothingness surrounding you doesn’t directly translate into a nail-biting cinematic experience.
The film also see-saws from one extreme to the other. When it’s not telling, it’s showing far too much. Another golden rule of horror is don’t reveal the big bad before you have to. All too often, they’re seen in plain sight sooner than later, voiding the elements of surprise or terror. What ‘Scary Stories’ is missing is that middle ground - it’s too episodic, as we move from chapter to chapter, with no real build-up of drama or tension.
Sure, it’s dark and eerie, but it feels like a facsimile of something that’s supposed to be scary rather than something scary itself.
It’s a shame, because the younger cast all in all do a decent job. Zoe Margaret Colletti is a suitable lead, bringing the girl power along with the brains; she’s the one who puts all the puzzle pieces together and keeps the gang united. Zajur and Rush are ideal offsiders, with Zajur in particular offering a bit of humour, but Michael Garza steals the show - he’s charismatic, nuanced, and very watchable. He’s certainly a name I hope to see more of in the future.
Director André Øvredal (‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’, ‘Trollhunter’) provides adequate direction. There are a few moments of flair - the sequences in the red room are probably the visual highlights of the film - but besides these flashes of inspiration, there’s little to impress - or distress, for that matter. Much like the screenplay, the direction never really offers much in the way of anticipation beyond the few predictable jump scares. Sure, it’s dark and eerie, but it feels like a facsimile of something that’s supposed to be scary rather than something scary itself.
Perhaps this was their plan all along. There’s just enough scares to appeal to the under-15s with disposable income, but very little for anyone else looking to get into the real Halloween spirit. ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ has the potential to be really unique, but is let down by its blandness and lack of originality. Yes, there’s a hint at a sequel at the end of the film, but I hope for our sake that the book is closed on any more of these scary stories.