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It’s time to expect better from mainstream horror. I’m not saying we should indulge in the art-house extravagances of the 2018 Suspiria remake or even return to the giallo roots of the original Suspiria. What I am saying is that there is so much more to modern horror than a loud jump scare. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, from André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), knows this but still hamstrings itself by bowing to old tropes and easy cheap scares.
On Halloween night, 1968 three teenagers Stella (Zoe Colletti), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) along with drifter Ramon (Michael Garza) sneak into the old Bellows house where they find a book belonging to Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). Upon leaving the house the book begins to write stories seemingly unaided. Quickly Stella and her friends realise that Sarah’s ghost is writing these scary stories and that they are coming true.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is, first of all, a loud film. Every jump scare, whether visual or aural, hits like a stun grenade. The issue with jump scares is that – like anything story-related such as twists or a character’s actions – they have to be earned and they have to make sense.
Approximately one jump scare in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark feels earned. A claustrophobic scene of a character hiding under a bed from a corpse searching for her lost toe is terrifying in how sustained the silence and dread is before the inevitable shrieking spirit comes a calling.
Others like the scenes featuring the Jangly Man rely too heavily on the supernatural speed of the creature to create consistently forgettable scares. I mean the man can disassemble himself at will and twist his body into impossible positions and a lot of the scares come from how fast he can run? Bit of a cop out if you ask me.
With that said the design of the creatures and ghosts is thankfully almost all done through practical effects. Contortionist Troy James plays the Jangly Man who though a unique mix of leathery prosthetics, his own bendy talents and CGI makes the creature far more than the speed-machine it could have been in a weaker film.
The Pale Lady, a deathly white ghost, is perhaps the film’s most terrifying sequence. It’s so visually distinctive in fact, it could have easily been drawn from the terrific anthology horror series Channel Zero. A red lit corridor sees a character hunted on all sides by the Pale Lady before slowly being consumed by her. There are no jump scares – only the all-consuming dread of inevitability.
Speaking of dread and inevitability both the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s election figure in the background of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Maybe the true scary story is Republicanism? OooOOoohhhh! In all seriousness the film’s most radical act is to conflate a monster that can fall to pieces or twist its body into contorted positions with Nixon, the man Hunter S. Thompson called “a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American dream”.
In comparison with Øvredal’s two other films Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ends on a note of hope, something that’s easily seen as writer and producer Guillermo del Toro’s influence when compared with the endings of Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. As well his previous two films are contained and focused when compared with Scary Stories’ uneven scares.
Really this film just proves that not even a master of the suspenseful and the fantastic like Guillermo del Toro is immune to multiplex dumbing down. Horror is an incredibly diverse medium in terms of the stories it tells and the scares it delivers. Audiences deserve better than the equivalent of a very loud “BOO!” delivered right against their eardrums.