Movie Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a horror for the Goosebumps generation.

You know? Like many people from the millenial flock, I grew up absorbing everything Goosebumps and Goosebumps-adjacent; all these scary stories that featured hapless kids having terrible things that were just on the side of child-appropriate ruin their lives for good. White-knuckle terror for pre-pubescent me, these kind of episodic nightmare visions of children Getting What They’re Due for mild misdemeanours have stuck with me – after all, as far as I was concerned, this was where horror began for me.

From director Andre Overgard, the man behind the tremendous creature feature Troll Hunter and the, uh, somewhat better forgotten The Autopsy of Jane Doe, comes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. And it’s the sort of the film that seems specifically built to appeal to people like me; people who grew up scaring themselves shitless on spooky stories, and are now old enough to love the genre and not have to hide behind the sofa the whole way through. 

Set in 1968, Scary Stories traces the tale of Stella (Zoe Colletti), after the comes into the posession of a century-old book of scary stories with a dark past – which eventually brings the stories to life, and acts them out on the people who come into contact with the book. Based on a series of books of the same name by Alvin Schwarz, all this set-up basically allows for the movie to delve into short episodes of deeply unsettling horror minisodes that turn this into a familiarly creepy horror flick for people of the Goosebumps generation.

The character work is often broad, and the wraparound story is rollicking but rarely ultra-inventive – but these little short stories that stalk our leading characters are magnificent and genuinely spooky vignettes that alone make the movie worth it. I don’t want to give away the specifics – not when watching them unfold is so fun – but these are, as the title suggests, eerie campfire stories offered up with chilling vision by Overgard. Add in some inventive monster design, a lack of reliance on gore (of which there is nearly none), and solid performances from the central, doomed teenage cast, and this movie feels like a cram-session of all the top-shelf RL Stine stories you could dig up on short notice.

But beyond that, Overgard offers a little commentary on the setting, that lends Scary Stories the weight it needs to stop it from becoming a complete throwaway. Set against the backdrop of an election that saw Nixon take office, it weaves with some skill the pressing horror of the Vietnam War and how it will obliterate much of the generation that we’re following here, even if they make it out of the, you know, actual horror stories this movie subjects them to alive.  The first shot of the movie is the X in Nixon graffiti-d over with a Swastika; Scary Stories might not be here first and foremost to make a political point, but it’s there, and it gives this story a grounding that only helps the scene-setting and storytelling as a whole.

Overgardall, Scary Stories is a solidly fun little horror movie, with enough connection to the real world and to real horrors to make it feel more than a piece of franchise throwaway nonsense. But more than anything, it feels perfectly-timed to cash in on the nostalgia of the kids like me who grew up on horror stories told in this style and with this much verve for the genre. And, okay, who still might hide behind the sofa once in a while.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Consequence of Sound)

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