The horror film loosely based on Alvin Schwartz’s collection of short stories is an amalgamation of familiar horror tropes
The story is set in 1968 in a small town called Mill Valley in the backdrop of the Vietnam War. A group of teenage misfits and their new friend stumble upon a suburban legend about a girl named Sarah Bellows who was killed in a haunted mansion in the late 19th Century. A book that belonged to Sarah which writes by itself describing how each victim will die is recovered by Stella Nichols (Zoe Margaret Collettithe), the protagonist, and eventually comes to haunt them.
A sense of familiarity sets in within the opening 10 minutes of the film. The setting, the characters, and the tropes have been influenced by several screen adaptations. The young heroes, who are unpopular nerds, have a striking resemblance to the protagonists from Strangers Things, and IT. There is also the obligatory ‘Biff Tannen’ duplicate who is a thorn in the side for the heroes, and the period setting is the final ingredient that completes the recipe to make the film worth investing time in.
Fortunately, the film has just the right amount of its distinctive style to set it apart from its predecessors. Director André Øvredal has added his own cinematic flair with some vibrant shots and well-timed build-up to some of the more tense moments in the films. Legendary horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s influence, as a screenwriter, is evident across the narrative. The horror aspect of the film has been crafted with care and finesse. The filmmakers have used the setting and the environment, and with added excellence in cinematography, to create something that stays true to being an authentic representation of a horror movie. The focus on an individual's worst fears is not an unfamiliar plot device, but the writers have done well to give it a fresh outlook.
In the backdrop of the narrative is a political storm with the Vietnam War looming large and Richard Nixon’s rise to power, a core theme of the narrative. Michael Garza’s character Ramon’s arc rests entirely on him being drafted to join the war in Vietnam. In fact, it was one of his worst fears which become expounded towards the end of the film, and the ‘Nixon’ references throughout these sequences are almost unmissable. Themes of mental health, classism, and racism are intertwined into the narrative. It is also used as part of the overall setting to add to the horror and frightening moments in the film.
Despite some great performances by the young cast, the characters are underdeveloped apart from Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). Ramon’s arc remained a mystery for much of the film, and Stella’s arc took the entirety of the runtime to fully develop. There is also very little explanation provided as to how Sarah Bellows can haunt the heroes and how she draws her powers. Providing more heft to the lore would have elevated the overall quality of the film.
The film might not be groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it has perfectly made use of several familiar tropes to make it an entertaining one