Given the option of facing Jason Voorhees or going to school with a bulbous sized pimple dangling from their cheek, you can bet teenagers would rather take their chances at Camp Crystal Lake than be seen by their peers with a protruding blemish that not even Dr Pimple Popper would touch.
In Universal Pictures delightfully-grim adaptation of the Alvin Schwartz horror book series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (SSTTITD), a giant pimple proves one of many deadly challenges for a group of teens. After awakening the ghost of Sarah Bellows, a being who crafts and details the deaths of children within a cursed book, a group of on-the-fringe teenagers must prevent the shadowy figure from murdering people in their quaint Pennsylvanian town.
Not since Tom Riddles’ diary has a book been this menacing, with SSTTITD working best when being an exploration of the innate fears that leave us vulnerable. SSTTITD depicts a glowing Americana on the decline; one filled with drive-ins, Cadillacs, kids running freely on the streets, and roaring Jukebox anthems. It is a story that is told through the eyes of teenagers sitting on the cusp of adulthood and set against the backdrop of Nixon era politics (the overhanging fear of the Vietnam War being scarier than anything Sarah Bellows could muster-up).
Director André Øvredal, who had previously directed Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, takes a classic approach to horror by making the scares feel earnt. If horror were a Jack-in-the-Box, Øvredal would never allow the weasel to pop. Øvredal allows SSTTITD to dwell in suspense for that little while longer, a feat that enables scares to land a more full-bodied and tantalising kick.
Øvredal is a director who allows characters to be pushed into a corner to face-off with their terrifying adversary. A technique that showcases Øvredal’s range as a visionary horror director who deploys fear-inducing methods of enclosure, offering characters no easy way out of troubling situations, as opposed to banal jump scares.
Øvredal’s demonstration of restraint allows him to go all the way in the scare department while remaining faithful to the genre he so deeply cherishes; as evident in SSTTITD’s references to Night of the Living Dead and the sheer volume of posters adorned on the bedroom walls of main-player Stella (Zoe Colletti). His gift of the fright is even more impressive considering the film’s M-Rating, resulting in the overall tone of SSTTITD fitting somewhere between an adaptation of Goosebumps meets Final Destination.
It seems like 2019 horror properties cannot get enough of tween focused stories, with the likes of Stranger Things, It: Chapter Two and now SSTTITD keeping this trend burning brightly. The characters at the centre of SSTTITD capture the minutiae of grief in roles that require equal parts investigative prowess as they do catharsis.
Øvredal grants all the young actors with heavy crosses to bear. Whether it be relating to abandonment, discrimination, bullying or loneliness, their unease is realised through frightening creations that embody their darkest insecurities.
This is where producer and monster fanatic Guillermo del Toro makes his presence felt, imbuing onto the film inspired creature designs that manage to offer up some creepy new faces into the horror zeitgeist. If scarecrows weren’t scary enough, they will now be the cause of nightmares for tweens everywhere thanks to the appropriately frightful Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Director: André Øvredal
Cast: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Dean Norris
Writers: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro, (story by Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton, based on a book by Alvin Schwartz)