I must admit I’m not usually a fan of the horror genre. Something about cowering into the depths of my couch with the hairs on my arms pricked up, scared to walk around the house without the lights on, just doesn’t appeal to me. However, I decided to crawl out of my comfort zone to review the mildly rated M film, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and put my heart rate to the test. After all, what better way to embarrass yourself in a cinema full of horror junkies by letting out screams and shrieks? So, with popcorn and slightly-soggy choc top in hands, my sister and I await the wrath of Sarah Bellows.
From the dark imagination of Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro and directed by Norwegian film director André Øvredal, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on the children’s book series of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz in the 1900s.
The year is 1968 and the film takes place in the small town of Mill Valley in Pennsylvania. After three friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) play a Halloween prank on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), the group has a run in with Vietnam War draft dodger Ramón (Michael Garza). Stella––a novice horror writer––leads them to a haunted house that once belonged to the town’s wealthy Bellows family to take refuge from Tommy and his gang. Stella and Ramón uncover a secret room and the infamous book of horror stories written by Sarah Bellows, the late family’s “psychotic” daughter.
As the legend goes, if someone whispers “Sarah Bellows, tell me a story”, then Sarah will be awoken and deliver your bidding. Of course, this is exactly what Stella does; we soon realise that the teens are in trouble and will pay the price for messing with a dead girl’s possession.
What I enjoy most about this film is that the plot line is always engaging. With the book in the hands of Stella, she starts to read the stories written in black, creepy cursive hand writing. However, something’s not right. Stella turns the page and words start appearing––a new story is being written right before her eyes. The story titled ‘Harold’ describes a character called Tommy and mirrors similar characteristics of Mill Valley’s own Tommy Milner. The next day Tommy is missing and Stella believes the story has come true but her friends remain sceptical.
Has the legend of Sarah Bellows come alive or is it just a hoax? What will the next story be? Who is the next victim?
The suspense used in key scenes is exceptionally excruciating. The audience is forced to lock their eyes to the screen and wait for the living daylights to be scared out of them. The use of camera work, screenplay and acting all work together to pull off an ultimate thrill factor at just the right moment.
Ominous music, dark settings, exaggerated suspense and worried children have all been seen before, but what I find stands out the most in this film is the use of humour. It takes the edge off, providing a laugh in between darker moments and providing a subtle reminder this film is based on a children’s series. However, the film doesn’t limit its audience to kids (in fact, I would be worried if parents were taking their kiddiewinks to see it).
Put simply the main theme of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a bunch of teenagers being terrorised by a lonely and angry ghost seeking revenge for the way the town and her family treated her. There are, however, a few sub-themes running through it, making the film more complex than its defining genre. You’ve got Stella who blames herself for her mum leaving, Ramón who is trying to avoid getting drafted to the Vietnam War and then there’s the idea of a story itself and the way imagination, words and facts have the ability to heal and hurt people.
Scary Stories doesn’t have an A-lister cast but it doesn’t need one. The cinematography by Roman Osin and the score done by Marco Beltrami and Anna Dubrich really round out this film. Psychedelic rock song Season of the Witch by Donovan performed by Lana Del Rey is bewitching and captures the tone of this 60s-set film.
Zoe Colletti in the lead role as Stella does a stunning job portraying her character’s story and performs with such emotion. The last time we saw actor Austin Abrams (Tommy) was in the teen mystery flick Paper Towns (2015) or in the more recent 2019 tv series Euphoria. Looking like a typical high school jock, his small part as a villain early in the film sets up the direction for how the rest of the 108 minutes play out. And, I must mention Austin Zajur as naïve Chuck who provides the jokes and sweet innocence of young teenage boys.
A few of the controversial original stories are kept, with The Big Toe, Me Tie Dough-ty Walker, The Red Spot and The Haunted House all featuring in this adaptation. Not that I’m someone who’s very cultured in horror movies, I get the impression some plots can be messy and repetitive. Someone discovers something is torturing them, turning their lives into a living hell. They either go to sleep, move to a new house or move to a new country. The paranormal activity keeps happening and they don’t know why––you get the picture. Scary Stories is similar in that Sarah is torturing these innocent kids but I like how each key scary story is focused on one character and not the whole group. The audience gets to see a different perspective and adventure each time a new story is written.
From the trailer, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film. Would the scares be worth it? Are the monsters believable? Would I be getting a sleepless night? However, I am happy to say this film hasn’t put me off from watching another horror film (within reason) and I recommend giving it a chance.
One thing’s for sure though, I don’t want Sarah Bellows telling me a story anytime soon.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in cinemas now!