Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (3 stars)

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Fun teen horror from Troll Hunter's André Øvredal, based on Alvin Schwartz's stories

For teenage scare-seekers, Goosebumps just isn't going to cut it anymore. This multi-stranded meta-horror offers a flawed but lively introduction to the harder horror stuff, rich in creature creations and teasing critiques of small-town America. Adapting Alvin Schwartz's short stories, Mexican producer Guillermo del Toro and Norwegian director André Øvredal combine an empathy for America's outsiders with an affection for horror clichés, such that there's plenty going on even when the plot gets choppy.

As with the Goosebumps films, it begins with a book. On Halloween, 1968, the geeky late-teens gang of would-be writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), cheeky Chuck (Austin Zajur), lusty Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and newcomer Ramón (Michael Garza) visit a haunted mansion shrouded in gossip about its late occupant Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), a girl who channelled her traumas into vengeful, supernatural stories. When Stella finds Sarah's book, it not only starts writing itself: it 'reads' its readers' fears, making them manifest.

As with his earlier Troll Hunter, Øvredal relishes these monstrous projections. Besides the scarecrow's nicely nasty MO, one set-piece involving spots and spiders should give puberty-bothered viewers shudders to remember. If the 'Pale Lady' episode seems underdeveloped by comparison, Øvredal's flair for confined spaces (previously witnessed in 2016's The Autopsy of Jane Doe) offers tense compensation.

Equally crucial is Øvredal's full-bodied approach to his likable leads' troubles. Between Ramón's draft crisis and Auggie's 'Toe Monster' encounter, their trials are not diluted; meanwhile, a charged backdrop of political crisis, prejudice and gossip comes equipped with well-aimed jabs at modern America. Lurching and jerking like its final zombie threat, the plot is less focused in its end-stretch. But the climactic tease for a sequel honours a core theme of histories and stories repeating themselves. Slyly resonant and like a (fun) house of horrors, on this form, another visit to Schwartz's morality tales deserves to scare up some interest.

General release from Fri 23 Aug.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • US / Canada
  • 1h 51min
  • 15
  • Directed by: André Øvredal
  • Cast: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush
  • UK release: 23 August 2019

In Halloween 1968, a gang of teens visit a haunted mansion where they find a book that starts manifesting their fears. Flawed but lively horror flick with plenty going on even when the plot gets choppy, with a charged backdrop of political crisis, prejudice and gossip.