Film Review – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
For those of us that came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the title Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may be familiar. It was a trilogy of books that collected short horror tales written by Alvin Schwartz. But what made them memorable for me – as I’m sure it did for many young readers – was Stephen Gammell’s unnerving illustrations. The drawings, consisting of black and white sketches, had an immediate impact in how it depicted its gruesome characters and macabre settings. As an adult looking back over them, I’m struck by how otherworldly and surreal they are. They’re beautiful, in their own twisted way. The edginess of the books caused some critics to call for their removal from school libraries.
The film adaptation – directed by André Øvredal and written by Dan and Kevin Hageman along with Guillermo del Toro (who also acts as producer) – will probably not have the same kind of reaction. While it does have creepiness in its production design and translates much of Gammell’s and Schwartz’s work, it’s also hampered by horror’s worst enemy: a PG-13 rating. There’s just not much bite here: the scares are mundane, the gore at a minimum, and the overall story and character work recycled. It’s not badly produced; in some ways it’s executed well. But coming from such rich source material and backed by an artist of del Toro’s caliber, you walk out wishing there was more.
How do you take a book series made up of standalone stories and combine them into one narrative? Here, the plot wraps together teenagers, a creepy haunted house, and a mysterious notebook. We open in 1968, in the small town of Mill Valley. On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur), and drifter Ramon (Michael Garza), escape into an abandoned house while fleeing the neighborhood bullies. Lucky for them the house is notorious amongst the locals, involving an urban legend of a young girl named Sarah and the terror that surrounds her. While inside, the group comes into possession of Sarah’s notebook, filled with stories written in blood.
What exactly do the kids do when they find a book written in blood? They take it home with them, of course! And by doing so, they unleash a supernatural force in which the stories they read miraculously come to life, with each of them targeted as a potential victim. This is where the production really shines. The special effects and make up bring Gammell’s designs to life. Fans of the books will instantly recognize characters such as Harold the Scarecrow and The Pale Lady, whose depictions are so accurate that it looks like they walked straight off the page. One character – The Jangly Man – is a composite of multiple characters from several stories. The Jangly Man has a body that can fall to pieces and then re-attach with ease, contorting in unnatural ways. Much of The Jangly Man’s design is helped with computers, but I discovered that the physical actor – Troy James – is a contortionist by trade. His skillset brought a welcomed extra layer to the character, making it one of the clear highlights.
Scary Stories starts to slip when we focus on story and character. Once again, we have “Smalltown U.S.A.” invaded by a ghostly presence that can only be stopped by kids who are barely old enough to drive. In a time where Stranger Things dominates the small screen and the It reboot franchise is still fresh in everyone’s memory, dancing the same routine doesn’t feel all that fresh. Because of the PG-13 rating, the plot is handcuffed in what it can and can’t do. Instead of highlighting the horrific elements, the narrative has to settle for a more investigational approach, as the kids try to figure out how to stop the demons from coming alive. This is straight out of the “Generic Horror Movie Handbook.”
The setting of 1968 is also a peculiar choice, given that was the year Nixon was elected and it was during the heart of the Vietnam War. Both are referenced throughout, but the allegory never comes off convincingly. Are the filmmakers trying to say that the “real monsters” are those we see in the periphery? Is this somehow a comment on the political climate we find ourselves in today? I’m all for personal interpretations, but the symbolism didn’t feel fleshed out enough to make a definitive one.
One strong theme is how stories can come to life inside a young person’s imagination. To kids, stories are often more real than reality. The editing captures this by jumping back and forth between a character reading from the book and the scare scene playing out in conjunction. Looking at it sideways, it can be interpreted that this is all happening inside a person’s mind, but the dangers are so tangible that they’re convinced it’s really occurring. There are scenes in which stories appear to be writing themselves in real time. That’s similar to the feeling of reading a great book – it doesn’t feel so much like you’re reading as you are living out the story.
I liked Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I just wish I loved it. Would it have worked better as an anthology instead of a single continuous narrative? That’s not for me to say. As currently constructed, this is an ok, harmless horror/thriller. I think the fact that it tries to appeal to a wider audience may have been what hindered it. I hope there is an R-rated, no holds-barred version of this existing somewhere, that’s the movie I’d like to see.