My brother and I tend to have pretty similar tastes in horror, so when he recommended Andre Ovredal’s adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I practically sprinted to the cinema to catch a screening. And, boy, am I glad I did! This is a young adult chiller done right, and I predict that it will introduce a whole new generation of teens, tweens, and maybe a few brave children to the likes of George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, and Stephen King.
The setup is elegant in its simplicity: on a particularly spooky Halloween night, a ragtag trio of high schoolers (accompanied by one mysterious drifter) wanders into the local haunted house, where they discover a cursed book. From the moment they crack it open, their fates are sealed: new tales begin spontaneously appearing on its pages, scrawled in fresh blood—and starring them as the main characters! Can they placate the vengeful ghost writer before her fury consumes them all, erasing them from reality itself?
Granted, the premise of scary stories coming to life and wreaking havoc is nothing new—Sony’s Goosebumps franchise springs to mind—but that’s hardly a crippling flaw. After all, the source material was always more about atmosphere than originality, and the film version has that in great abundance, featuring plenty of twisted, grotesque creature designs (evidence that Guillermo del Toro is, indeed, the producer) and frenetic camerawork, editing, and music that scarcely give the audience an opportunity to catch their breath. Heck, I’d even argue that the ubiquity of clichés is justified, considering our protagonists are literally trapped inside of a narrative, slaves to the whims of The Plot. They will trip and sprain their ankles. The engine of their car will stall. The authorities will dismiss their (admittedly outlandish) explanations for why they’re constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time. They know exactly what’s coming for them—and they can’t escape it.
What really elevates the material, though, is the brilliant choice of setting. In 1968, the American Dream—apple pie and white picket fences—was slowly decaying, revealing the ugly corruption, jingoism, and bigotry beneath the façade of liberty and justice for all. Scary Stories embraces the political turmoil of the period: several characters are in danger of being drafted and sent off to die in the Vietnam War, our heroine’s mother abandoned her shortly after she was born (a small town scandal that has hounded her throughout her life), the mentally ill are locked away in institutions that are little better than prisons, and there’s a pervasive sense of nostalgia for the “Good Old Days”—which probably never existed in the first place. Thus, the world is absolutely terrifying even before the supernatural creeps into it—yet another Del Toro trademark, and arguably the more important one, as it’s what ultimately allows the movie to transcend its somewhat derivative storyline and occasional overreliance on jump scares.