Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Writer: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Rated PG-13 | Minutes: 108
Release Date: August 9, 2019
As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark from author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell. The way that the creepy writing married with the bone-chilling imagery carved out my love for horror at a very young age. These pictures weren’t easy to look at, either. But as disturbing as they are, they were fascinating pieces of work. The way that the blacks and grays worked in unison against a white background evoked a wide range of emotions from fear to intrigue. And the same can be said for the writing, which was simple and yet did not skimp on any of the gory details. All of it just pulled you into a world that is both frightening and yet you want to visit.
During my screening, director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro introduced the big-screen adaptation of the same with Del Toro describing the film as a gateway horror for a young adult generation. And that seems to be a very fair assessment, as the film has some really terrific characters and delivers plenty of scares, but unfortunately lacks a fully developed story. Still, it manages to bring the pages to life in a way that respects the source material and opens up a world that is beginning to be explored.
Set during the height of 1968 with Richard Nixon on the Presidential campaign trail and high schoolers being drafted for the war in Vietnam, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark takes place in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, which has its share of typical racism. Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti), a high school horror enthusiast, goes trick-or-treating her friends, including Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), who finally are able to pull a prank on the local bullies. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned and they take a short-term refuge in Ramon’s (Michael Garza) car. After escaping the bullies, the friends venture to the town’s “haunted house” which holds some sinister secrets. The family that owned it had a daughter, Sarah Bellows, whom they tortured and marked as a pariah.
Sarah would then carry out her vengeance on her family perpetrators by writing stories in a notebook with her own blood. This book was shelved for years on end until Stella and her friends discover it. Without knowing the truth about Sarah’s history, Stella accidentally unlocks an evil that brings these stories to life and curses the entire town. And Stella must find a way to stop the curse from spreading or die trying.
As far as stories go, this lacked a certain depth. However, the characters are terrific. Stella isn’t the typical high schooler. A lover of pop culture, she can quote Night Of The Living Dead and has read every issue of her favorite comic books. But she is also empathetic, unable to pursue her dreams of writing because she wants to stay with her dad (Dean Norris), who was walked out on by his wife, Stella’s mother, for unknown reasons. She blames herself for every bad thing that has happened to her, which only gets worse when she reads the book.
Soon, these stories come to life and her friends start to go missing. And she is the only one who connects the two things. She makes a believer out of Ramon after she sees the book writing itself, which tells a fateful story of “The Big Toe” that happens to make one of her friends go missing. It’s a repetitive cycle, but one that works because Øvredal is able to use Gammell’s images effectively and set the tone with pacing that raises the pulse.
The other male characters and one female character lack a certain charm and are pretty much one-dimensional. In fact, the town is pretty much like that. They all fall into the category of the bully, the popular girl, the ignorant and racist cop, etc, etc. All are connected because of their presence at the Bellow’s house, and as such, they have all become a part of the story. So when each one is told, they will all meet an unfortunate end. Take “Harold” for example, a creepy scarecrow who is often a punching bag for Tommy (Austin Abrams), the town bully. In it, he is chased by Harold, whose joints creak and face is crawling with bugs. Though it cannot be fully explained, somehow Tommy turns into the scarecrow. In “The Red Spot,” we see that the zit on Auggie’s sister (Natalie Ganzhorn) is actually a nest of spiders.
Øvredal knows how to draw out the sense of dread from each of these stories and use each of the monsters to evoke fear. While the mystery itself lacks any sort of interest, each time the vignettes become the star, it really plays up the suspense and scares. This is especially true during the film’s third act when the Jangly Man comes to chase Ramon.
Though the story is somewhat underdeveloped, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark carries on thanks in part to two great leads and Øvredal’s ability to respect Schwartz and Gammel’s original works. As soft narratively as it is, it is designed to be a sort of gateway that helps introduce the horror genre to a younger generation that may not be overly familiar with it. One that isn’t extremely on one end of the genre’s spectrum, but also makes the scares so enjoyable that it may be able to turn those who weren’t fans of the genre into ones.