Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the latest example of the Final Destination subgenre of horror films. To whit: a group of teenagers stumble into a haunted basement and find themselves cursed by the ghost of Sarah Bellows. The curse is realised through Sarah’s eponymous book of scary stories; one-by-one, their names are inscribed on its pages in blood and the stories told about them are made flesh. Like Final Destination, the plot is a slender excuse to watch these characters suffer and die, one by one.
In premise, there’s not a great deal of difference between this set-up and, say, a slasher. In a traditional slasher, the characters gather together and are picked off one-by-one until our final girl (and perhaps a companion or two) remains to fight off the villain, successfully or unsuccessfully. Yet, while I’m a staunch defender of slashers – even the generally shitty ones – the Final Destination mode of storytelling doesn’t quite work for me. Here, despite the likeability and believability of the doomed teenagers, I found myself disengaged for the bulk of the film’s runtime.
For me, I think the difference between a film like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and, say, any given Friday the 13th film comes from two points of difference. With our characters’ grisly fates literally spelled out for us beforehand, this narrative approach underlines the inevitability of death – a huge part of why slashers appeal to me! – but simultaneously undermines the atmosphere of suspense present in that genre. Mediocre slashers have a certain energy to them because of the sense that anything could happen at any moment – even a pedestrian scene of someone wondering through an empty kitchen gains a nervous frisson from the unspoken potential lingering in every shadow.
André Øvredal’s direction is far from pedestrian, but the deterministic nature of the narrative means that it never really attains that suspenseful spark it cries out for. It doesn’t help that the scares aren’t especially gruesome or gory – presumably because of the source text, a series of children’s books – so it lacks the extreme absurdity that could’ve shifted it towards a more horror-comedy vibe and salvaged the tone. The creature designs are more cutesy than crude; one in particular – a corpulent creature who consumes its victims through a big bear hug – is more likely to provoke a response of aww than argh.
The third act goes down the kind of route you’d expect, with a surviving pair of teenagers setting out to prevent Sarah’s scary storytelling. Think mystical, elderly women of colour, extended action scenes where once-lethal monsters are all of a sudden far less scary, and a climax setting up the inevitable sequel. This sort of conclusion is found across the Paranormal Activity series, in Truth or Dare, and even at the end of the execrable Bye Bye Man – and it’s always bad. Horror antagonists become much scarier the more you try and explain them, and the need to attempt to explain that is required by the Final Destination set-up.
As a My First Horror Film, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has merit – it’s a good introduction to the genre for pre-teens who might be looking for something that’s not too scary. But for a seasoned fan of the genre, there are better stories to watch when the sun goes down.