Sunday 29 September 2019

Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

A quintet of teens are terrorised by things that go bump in the night in Andre Øvredal's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Set in small town America during the 60s, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows three friends – Stella (Zoe Colletti), an aspiring horror author, and her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). After a Halloween prank goes awry, the three friends and teenage drifter Ramon (Michael Garza) seek refuge from local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) at an abandoned house that once belonged to the mysterious Bellows family. Here the group unearths a book of scary stories written by Sarah Bellows, the neglected daughter of the wealthy Bellows.

After escaping Tommy and taking the book with them, the group find themselves haunted by a series of spooky creatures – occurrences which appear as if by magic in the Bellows book, while simultaneously playing out in real-life.

Each story takes the form of the group's greatest fear, from murderous scarecrows to swarms of spiders and vengeful zombies. To survive, Stella and her friends must learn the truth about the Bellows and face their fears, once and for all.

Based on a series of short stories of the same name, this film from Norwegian filmmaker Andre Øvredal is aimed squarely at an audience who perhaps aren't old enough to buy a ticket to It: Chapter Two but are bored of more cartoonish horror for children, such as the recent Goosebumps films or A House with a Clock in its Walls.

Some of the scares – which come thick and fast after a fairly slow first act – really push the envelope of what you would expect to get from a M-rated film. As an intro to more mature horror, you can't get much scarier or hardcore than Scary Stories without tipping over into a restricted rating like The Conjuring or It.

In terms of structure, it is immediately obvious that the screenplay is stretching to connect all of these previously unconnected short stories. The set pieces – such as the aforementioned murderous scarecrow come to life or the frenzy of arachnids – are on their own well-executed, with slow-build tension leading to genuine frights.

But the connective tissue isn't all that interesting or entertaining, with the ragtag group of teens ranging from good (Colletti) to irritating (Zajur). If the filmmakers were angling for a similar rapport to Stranger Things or It with their lead characters, they've missed the mark somewhat, with the audience caring very little as they are picked off one by one.

The Verdict: 5/10

A strange finale that tees up an unwarranted sequel means Scary Stories' final page leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, but on the whole this a solid if unspectacular compendium of spookiness that an older audience might latch onto during the spring school holidays. For adults, there is almost certainly more interesting and more entertaining fare out there.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in cinemas across Australia now.

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