Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
While we may want to pretend that we don’t let our kids read horror stories, you, or your kids, or your friends, or your friends’ kids, have likely heard of and read at least some of these books.
The first project we have had from Guillermo del Toro, this time as a co-writer and co-producer, since writing and directing his Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Shape of Water, in 2017.
I imagine fans of the books will be pretty pleased with the way multiple stories are presented and the overall visual style and atmosphere created by del Toro and director André Øvredal.
For those who want and hope they will be truly scared…you may find yourself a bit disappointed.
This may feel a bit too close to the kids/ensemble approach popularized by It, “Stranger Things,” and other recent movies and television series.
I HATE SPIDERS.
Over the course of 10 years, and nearly 370 pages, renowned children’s author Alvin Schwartz wrote more than 80 different Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Ultimately comprising a trilogy of Schwartz’ take on American folklore and good old-fashioned “campfire stories,” the stories were controversial. However, Stephen Gammell’s controversial illustrations, horror-movie style black and white drawings, drew much of the ire, and became just as much a part of the appeal, and the push back, generated by Schwartz’s best-selling novels.
With sales of over 7 million copies, these stories have made their ways into libraries, book shelves, kids’ bedrooms, and homes all around the world for nearly four decades. And now, Schwartz’s stories and Gammell’s vision is brought to the big screen by director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) and Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro for a compendium of stories woven into a larger narrative focusing on loss, fear, trust, and betrayal.
Horror enthusiast and teenage novelist Stella (Zoe Colletti) is meeting up with her friends on Halloween in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, circa 1968. Anticipating an altercation with a trio of local bullies, led by Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams), Stella and her friends Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) find themselves at a drive-in theater, jumping into the car of the unsuspecting, new-kid-in-town, Ramón (Michael Garza).
This backdrop gives rise to Stella, Ramón, and friends visiting a robust old mansion, the proverbial “Cabin in the Woods,” where kids were rumored to have vanished in decades prior. In the house, poking around, Stella finds a book full of stories rumored to be written by the mysterious Sarah Bellows, a victimized daughter of the Bellows family who lived in the mansion. Rumors state that her being tortured and her ultimate death may have cursed the home and anyone who comes into it.
For Sarah, this book is something of a Holy Grail at first. Soon, she realizes that empty pages are filling up on their own. The ink appears to be made from fresh red blood and the first “new” story culminates with the fact that Tommy is now missing. As Sarah tries to return the book, Ramón finds it sitting back in her room. And the cycle repeats, as Sarah and her friends race against time to save their friends before a malevolent entity effectively writes them out of existence.
del Toro, co-scripting with Dan & Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie), opts to follow the recent trend of kid-heavy ensembles made famous with 2017’s It and the cultural phenomenon “Stranger Things.” This is not a bad move, especially when trying to draw in a teenage audience, but the film suffers initially from what appears to be a lack of originality among similar-themed shows and recent movies.
After a bit of a clunky first act, the movie finds its stride once Stella leads the charge to save her friends. Colletti largely impresses in a role designed to guide us through the different stories and keep us on track in trying to determine why Sarah is such a vengeful entity.
Approximately a half-dozen or so stories from Schwartz’s three novels find their way into what may constitute a first film of a new franchise, while those familiar with the source material will recognize that Sarah Bellows is a new addition to this world. With Schwartz’s stories predominantly a page or two in length, the need to house them around a larger story proves necessary.
Øvredal has good command of the material, patiently exploring the new environments and settings his characters find themselves in. The haunted house setting is fun, but one thing the film lacks is, well, genuine scares. The occasional jump scare lands effectively, but the formatting of the stories almost works against the ability to properly scare its audience.
Primarily, we don’t want to see what we know we are going to see. Once the payoff arrives, the story ends abruptly because the source material is only a page or two in length. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s biggest problem might be that the anticipation around the recreation of the stories is palpable. However, more often than not, the truncated payoffs prove rather underwhelming.
All that aside, I had a lot of fun with this. I liked the chemistry generated by Colletti and Garza, as teenagers who meet by happenstance and grow to rely on one another through an unimaginable set of circumstances.
Not all of the political commentary lands, but del Toro and his team are looking for parallels between 1968 and today, finding more than a few examples of how some things change and others stay the same..
Though it runs a bit long at 111 minutes, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is pure, summer escapism. You can go with friends, grab a hand, armrest, or both, scarf down a bag of popcorn and brag about how “it wasn’t that scary” once it is all over. Then, try not to think of The Jangly Man as you try and fall asleep.
Or spiders. Man oh man. I HATE SPIDERS.
A word of caution for families and parents: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark absolutely earns its PG-13 rating from the MPAA. My guess is that some edits were made, and perhaps some blood was removed in post-production, to make sure the studio secured the rating they wanted. There are moments which may prove unsettling to sensitive viewers, or potentially to kids who are not accustomed to seeing horror movies or horror-themed imagery. Despite not having nearly the same shock and awe as Gammell’s first edition drawings did in the 1980s, there are some characters and images which could be construed as “nightmare fuel” for younger viewers.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Kathleen Pollard, Javier Botet.
Director: André Øvredal
Written by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo Del Toro (screenplay); Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton (story).
Adapted from the novels “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz
Release Date: August 9, 2019