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Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a horror movie based on a book series of the same name, that although well known in the States, is an unknown commodity here in the UK. As far as I can gather, this series of stories, aimed at a younger audience it should be noted, is well loved, probably in the same way as Goosebumps. With Guillermo del Toro on writing duties, and direction from Andre Ovredal, there is a lot to look forward to in this release, however, there is a problem.

The marketing of the film, and the BBFC rating, would lead you to believe that this was an anthology of horror stories to rival the likes of Creepshow or VHS. However, there seems to have been some tonal issues with what we eventually get, that cant marry up the source material to the movie itself.

The film introduces us to a small group of high school friends, that find themselves in the derelict family home of The Bellows, a house that is reputed to be haunted after Sarah Bellows has hung herself there in the late 1800s. Aspiring writer Stella, played by Zoe Margaret Colletti, finds a hidden book written by Sarah, filled with ghost stores that write themselves, and bring doom to whoever is unfortunate enough to be “read” by the book. It is this conceit that gives the feeling of an anthology film, as characters are dispatched by different ghostly creations in set pieces through out the screenplay. Stella realises what is happening, and the race is on to save herself from being the final chapter of the book.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, Austin Zajur, 2019. ph: George Kraychyk / © CBS Films / courtesy Everett Collection

The various apparitions that appear in the film are, as you would imagine from Del Toro, well realised. Creepy scarecrow and toe-less corpse all have the hallmarks of urban legends that you may have thought you heard about. However, it would seem that nobody was really quite sure just how far to push the envelope horror wise in the final cut. There is very little blood and guts stuff on view here, with the creative team choosing more friendly ways of dispatching of the cast, but as a result, the set up is always better than the pay off. The monsters are creepy, and do exactly what they are meant to do, but the “kill” always feels diluted, and I imagine that fans of the genre may leave the experience feeling slightly let down.

Sure it is an imaginative premise, but the toning down of the violence and real horror is going to disappoint. Perhaps it is due to the original stories being aimed at a younger audience, and the producers being aware that younger fans may want to see this, but in the UK the film has a 15 rating, meaning younger fans of the books will not be able to watch this. I think in the US the certificate was PG 13, a more realistic rating, as generally this film will not resonate much with older teens, and 20 somethings. So this is a difficult one to unpack.

For an older audience it will seem silly and ineffectual, with the horror elements not hitting the mark, despite the fact that it certainly could have if it wanted, and the target demograph that this film should be hitting, will have trouble being allowed to watch it. It is a problem, and one that could have been solved if the production had decided which way they wanted to go at the outset. Commit to the bit, I always say, so either go all out horror, or settle for a PG 13, but treading between the two has resulted in a nicely put together scary movie that will be wasted on the audience it receives and unseen by the ones who would have enjoyed it the most. Personally I enjoyed it despite these failings, but i know there were others that didn’t.