Friday 23 August 2019

"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" (Guardian 23/08/19)

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ***
Dir: André Øvredal. With: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris. 108 mins. Cert: 15

Directed by Troll Hunter’s André Øvredal, with script contributions from Guillermo del Toro and Saw graduates Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, this YA-leaning horror compendium proves a mixed bag over the long haul, but its best segments offer an upgrade on those Goosebumps movies: more rigorously self-referential in their storytelling, with an appreciable edge that lands the whole with a 15 certificate. It feels like a film made to be snuck into.

Del Toro’s influence can be most keenly felt in the careful setting-up of its world: an American Everytown – dateline: 1968 – that is anything but a nostalgic haven, beset as it is with oddly zomboid bullies, lopsided families and unaddressed traumas, not to mention Nixon on TV each night, rallying his base. What goes on there digests several decades of small-town horror activity, setting local kids to laying old ghosts to rest; the fun lies in the film’s close correlation of words and images.

The words write themselves, in ominously crimson ink on the pages of a thumping ledger found in the basement of a sealed-up property. The images these give rise to are striking, piquant, often unnerving: a jock turning into a straw man from the inside out, a Dahlian interlude with a severed toe in a bubbling vat of stew, a knowingly icky bit with a spider bite.

Anybody of legal ticket-buying age will likely find at least some of it familiar. These gurus of gore are rehashing the campfire tales and urban myths they themselves were raised on, either to pass on a torch or put their own demons to bed, and the many-handed approach flits between snappy Tales from the Crypt pulp and graver, del Toro-esque social statement; only once – with a chase involving a self-reassembling corpse on the evening of Nixon’s election win, a real night of the living dead – does it fully bridge the two. Still, the kids – particularly Zoe Colletti as the sensitive Stella – are very good, and it just about functions as a brainstorm of primal fear scenes, the movie equivalent of a horror-comic summer special: good for the odd giggle and shiver, if naggingly disposable.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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