Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Director: André Øvredal
Screenplay: Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman (screen story by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan; based on the series by Alvin Schwartz)
Stars: Zoe Margaret Colletti (Stella Nicholls), Michael Garza (Ramón Morales), Gabriel Rush (Auggie Hilderbrandt), Dean Norris (Roy Nicholls), Gil Bellows (Chief Turner), Lorraine Toussaint (Lou Lou), Austin Zajur (Chuck Steinberg), Natalie Ganzhorn (Ruth), Austin Abrams (Tommy), Kathleen Pollard (Sarah Bellows)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S. / Canada
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Despite being a child of the 1980s who displayed an early interest in the horror genre, I never read any of the books in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. I am not sure how this famous and much-read (and much-banned) book series escaped my attention (perhaps it is because my interest in horror led me almost directly in the world of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul). Thus, having no direct experience with the source material, I came to André Øvredal’s film adaptation with no preconceived notions or expectations outside of my general understanding of the books being a collection of horror short stories drawn from folklore. No fannish demands to be met or betrayed here.

The film version, which was written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman from a screen story conceived by Guillermo del Toro (who at one time was slated to direct), Patrick Melton, and Marcus Dunstan, eschews the traditional horror anthology format in which the stories are clearly demarcated from each other and weaves aspects of them into a new narrative, this one featuring a group of teenagers in a small Pennsylvania town in 1968 awakening an evil force inside a haunted house that then wreaks havoc on their lives via a book of scary stories that begins writing new stories by itself, each of which features one of the characters meeting a grisly demise at the hands (or claws or teeth or pitchfork) of some monstrosity. Thus, a book of short horror stories plays a prominent role, but it is used more as a motivating device for the horrors, rather than the organizing structure of the film. Instead, we are drawn into the characters as they slowly realize that they are being picked off one by one and must figure out how to stop the malevolent force working against them.

The book in question once belonged to a woman named Sarah Bellows, the daughter of the town’s wealthiest family who was locked away in the bowels of their cavernous mansion decades earlier. The aforementioned teens—bespectacled, horror-obsessed Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), wise-cracking Chuck (Austin Zajur), and awkward rich boy Auggie (Gabriel Rush), who are joined by a young, Hispanic drifter they meet at the drive-in named Ramón (Michael Garza)—wind up inside the decaying Bellows manor on Halloween night. There, Stella finds Sarah’s book of stories and brings it home with her, which is what unleashes Sarah’s supernatural rage, which is dramatized via memorable moments from several of Schwartz’s most famous stories, including “Harold,” “The Big Toe,” “The Red Spot,” and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” The folkloric origins of the stories are evident in their stark simplicity and directness. They each offer a slight variation on the very basic, nightmarish fear of being pursued by something from which you cannot escape. The pursuer takes various forms, including an extremely creepy scarecrow whose face looks like it was borrowed from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a rotting corpse, an enormous woman-child with a leering grin, and a screeching assemblage of body parts.

Del Toro’s influence can be felt here and there, particularly in the late-’60s setting (he loves setting his horrors in the near-distant past) and in the monsters, all of which play with the boundaries of the human. Øvredal, who first gained notice with the Norwegian fantasy-horror mockumentary Trollhunter (2010), is working with a lot of familiar set-ups and scare tactics, but he pulls them off with style and wit. There is a slightly giddy quality to the scares, the kind that often animates the tellers of spooky stories around campfires, where you can tell they can’t wait to get to the “boo!” moment. There are plenty of those in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Øvredal and cinematographer Roman Osin (Pride & Prejudice) stage them for maximum effectiveness and give each sequence its own distinct style. There isn’t much beneath the surface though, as attempts to integrate social issues via the racist attitudes inflicted on Ramón and the always present specter of disastrous American politics and foreign policy (Nixon shows up quite regularly in posters and on television screens) never really cohere. It doesn’t matter much, though, as any movie called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark lives and dies by its goosey thrills, of which there are plenty here.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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