When you say “Kids’ horror books” to most people, their immediate thoughts would go to Goosebumps, or the Point Horror series, or maybe even Neil Gaimen’s Coraline. Slightly less well known, in the U.K. at least, is Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; a collection of short, but brilliantly scary stories – with some horrifying illustrations – that have been keeping kids up at night since the 80s.
Perhaps its lesser-known status is what has kept it from being adapted for the big screen until now, and in a sea of film versions of books coming after the unprecedented success of the recent IT reinvention, it takes something or someone special to make your film stand out. Scary Stories has TWO special someones. Director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe) has a proven track record for scares, creepiness, and a flair for a great, atmospheric horror. He is the man bringing these stories to life for our viewing pleasure. And much like Raimi backing up Aja with Crawl, Øvredal has one of the greatest monster creators and horror directors working today in the legendary Guillermo Del Toro fighting his corner and backing him up. Only great things can come from this.
1968 America. It’s a tough time all round. Vietnam war in full swing and an election that’s about to bring Nixon into power. For four kids though, something much worse is about to happen. On Halloween night, the foursome break into an old house that’s said to be cursed by the ghost of Sarah Bellows, a woman who was said to have killed local children. The tales of her telling children stories before they vanished from existence have haunted the town for a century.
When the four kids – Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti – Annie), Ramon (Michael Garza – The Hunger Games), Auggie (Gabriel Rush – The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Chuck (Austin Zajur – Fist Fight) – find a book filled with Scary Stories that belong to the spirit of Sarah and steal it, they unleash the angry ghost’s vengeance upon themselves. When new stories start writing themselves in the book, stories that involve Stella and her friends who suddenly start to disappear, it’s a race to figure out how to stop the stories and appease the angry ghost before they are all gone.
READ MORE: FrightFest 2019 Diaries – Day Two
Bringing together two of the best names in horror for the adaptation of a series of children’s books might seem like an unorthodox move, but it is one that has paid off in the form of Scary Stories. A film that will act as a gateway to horror for families and young filmgoers for years to come; ignoring the 15 certificate the BBFC gave the film, in the US, a PG-13 rating makes this a film for families. But that doesn’t drop either the quality of the film of the scares.
What it does do, is tone down the extreme nature of the horror we’ve become used to. But it is all for the better. Scary Stories is less The Autopsy of Jane Doe and more like what happens when The Goonies is written by Stephen King. A family adventure film where the monsters are created by the guys that made Troll Hunter and Pan’s Labyrinth!
The kids are all likeable, except the ones you’re supposed to hate, of course, and you really do find yourself willing them through the awful things they are seeing. While we have seen characters like Stella and her band of misfits in dozens of movies – not just horrors – over the years, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to the formula when your audience isn’t necessarily the hardened horror fan. Each kid plays their part well, from revealing their innermost fears to their eventual demise, they give it their all and you can feel that when you sit to watch them. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is one of those films that will survive not because of what it did new, but what it did well. It might not be the most original of stories, but it does have heart in all the right places that marks its spot as a horror movie that younger audiences will love, but tell (scary) stories years into their adulthood to how it scared the living daylights out of them and they refused to look under the bed fearing what was there.
If your scary films of choice are top end French extreme, or torture porn, or even a good gruesome slasher, Scary Stories isn’t going to faze you. It’s aimed at an audience much younger and not as battle hardened as you. This is the film you let your kids watch if they are looking to turn it up a notch after The House With a Clock in its Walls whet their appetite for monsters and spooky goings on. And in that regard, it does everything it promises and a little more.
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