Written by: Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman (screenplay), Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton (story), Alvin Schwartz (novel)
Directed by: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, and Gabriel Rush
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You don't read the book; the book reads you."
Titles rarely come as elemental as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Alvin Schwartz’s series of anthologies do exactly what their names suggest in evoking the pure, playful thrills of campfire storytelling with brisk little chillers that remain indelible thanks in large part to Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations. Less generous critics might even dismiss them as trifles, and yet they managed to capture the imagination of an entire generation that remains haunted by unforgettable images. Fans and skeptics alike may be surprised by the long-awaited big screen adaptation, as André Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro have threaded Schwartz’s bite-sized yarns through an unexpectedly weighty tale about trauma, pain, vengeance, and generational strife. Landing in that delicate sweet spot between harmless kiddie horror and something genuinely upsetting, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a worthy adaptation, if not one that eventually takes on a life of its own.
It’s Halloween night in 1968, and a trio of high school seniors—monster kid and aspiring author Stella (Zoe Colletti), harmless loudmouth Chuck (Austin Zajur) and gangly dweeb Augie (Gabriel Rush)—have decided this year’s festivities won’t end with town bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) ruining their night by swiping their loot. A revenge scheme several years in the making blows up in their face though, sending them fleeing to a nearby drive-in, where they encounter Ramon Morales (Michael Garza), a teen that’s recently rolled into town. To thank him for letting them hide out in his car, the kids decide to show off the Bellows mansion, home to the town’s most infamous, sordid legend.
Now long abandoned and boarded up, it still draws curious kids, who breathlessly recount the tale of Sarah Bellows, the young daughter who supposedly killed other children simply by telling them Scary Stories. Like most ill-advised treks to haunted houses, this one ends poorly. Not only does Tommy track them down and torment them further, but the gang also discovers Sarah’s book of stories, which suddenly comes to life and begins writing new, grisly tales for everyone. In order to thwart Sarah’s vengeance, Zoe must uncover the girl’s true, tragic story before she loses everyone she cares about to a parade of monsters and spirits summoned from the beyond.
Admittedly, the framework here is a bit rickety, as the Bellows subplot feels like just that: an incidental story that mostly exists as an excuse to trot out the titular Scary Stories. The approach works, though, because the film is undoubtably at its best when it’s simply indulging Schwartz’s tales and all the nightmarish imagery that entails. A grotesque scarecrow stalks to life; a corpse returns from the dead to reclaim its missing toe; spiders burst for the from a girl’s face; an unsettling pale lady stalks a boy’s nightmares. Technically, Scary Stories is not an anthology; spiritually, it feels like one at times, as each tale unfolds like its own little segment. Likewise, each brings a distinct flavor: “Harold” unfolds like a hushed whisper in a desolate cornfield, while “The Red Spot” goes for the obvious gross-out gag. Eventually, the revelation of “The Jangly Man” ramps the proceedings up to the throttle of a boisterous creature feature. When it’s roving through Schwartz’s tales, Scary Stories mimics the sensation of thumbing through the actual books, where you’d never quite know what lurked on the next page.
Scary Stories will obviously invite comparisons to Goosebumps, another recent adaptation of a childhood staple for Monster Kids. Like that film, this one looks to flood the screen with the iconic images that endeared readers to the property in the first place; however, it does so with much more restraint than Rob Letterman’s sugar rush monster rally approach. Øvredal aims for genuine menace and dread with each sequence by patiently building the suspense, and, outside of a few unnecessary CGI embellishments, he largely succeeds in capturing the spook-a-blast nature of the original text. “The Pale Lady” sequence best reflects the film’s slow-burn, brain-searing approach: as a hospital’s hallways flood with a crimson haze, this uncanny, grinning phantasm creeps towards its victim with the grim inevitability of a nightmare you can’t shake. The otherworldly terror recalls the schizoid dream logic of vintage Eurohorror, which is quite unexpected for a movie aimed at tweens.
Threading these stories though an overarching narrative inevitably finds the source material taking a bit of a backseat, however. For most of the film, the tail successfully wags the dog with Sarah Bellows's story providing a loose framework for the actual stories. When her ordeal becomes more prominent, Scary Stories loses a bit of steam in becoming the umpteenth riff on The Ring, wherein the characters must set the sordid record straight by uncovering a decades-long conspiracy surrounding this misunderstood girl. “The Jangly Man” episode loosely dovetails into the climax to provide some haunted house jolts, increasing the sensation of déjà vu as the film becomes just a little bit too familiar in a landscape that’s been swarming with these sorts of films in recent years.
This one, at least, is executed with sharp filmmaking: Øvredal’s commitment to dread atmosphere, indelible imagery (highlighted by some fantastic creature work from Javier Botet and Troy James), and a potent subtext help Scary Stories to stand out in this crowded sub-genre. His film carries a thematic heft that’s a big staggering considering the target audience, who might arrive at the theater seeking funhouse thrills, only to confront a film that seeks to explore how children process the pain and trauma inflicted upon them by older generations. Setting the film in 1968—where the shadows of Vietnam and Nixon hover over the characters—allows Scary Stories to capture a flashpoint in American history where children became sacrificial lambs, much like the victimized Sarah Bellows they've whispered about their entire lives. She took her pain and inflicted suffering upon the world, prompting our characters here—especially Stella and Ramon—to reflect upon their own ordeals: absent parents, racism, an immoral military draft. These are sincere characters rather than the sort of screeching, broadly-sketched clichés found in many films made for children.
While I’m not quite sure the film finds a completely satisfying way to tie up all of these thematic concerns, it’s nice that they’re even there in the first place. Scary Stories is an unexpectedly heavy film that sees a sacred childhood text as an inroad to actually explore the intersection of adolescence, trauma, vengeance, and transcendence, which has been a frequent preoccupation of Del Toro. Here, it also collides with dark sense of warped Americana befitting a Stephen King story: this is the 60s not with a nostalgic glimmer but with a clear-eyed hindsight that rightfully channels the era’s turmoil and unrest into an American horror story of children haunted by repressed sins that keep bubbling to the surface one generation after the next.
Is that too much for an adaptation of a children’s book, especially one that inspired laughs and chills? Perhaps. Outside of the iconic imagery, this is not a literal translation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; rather, Øvredal and company have taken its bones and crafted something that’s faithful to an entire generation’s memory of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Their haunted childhoods have become the text here as the film explores the power stories have to actually traumatize and heal. That latter part is especially important: while Scary Stories might not boast the same type of playfulness as the books, it still manages to find the cathartic thrills of being scared. Appropriately enough, this film is poised to be a gateway for the next generation of budding horror enthusiasts who have graduated from R.L. Stine but aren’t quite ready to tackle Stephen King. Like the film suggests, we are compelled to pass down our trauma from one generation to the next, even if it's in the form of campfire stories.
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