Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark | Andre Ovredal | August 9, 2019
Stories can take on a life of their own, whether they are at the root of high school gossip or town lore. In the small Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley in 1968, a group of high schoolers learn that the hard way … and then some in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Aspiring writer and horror aficionado Stella (Zoe Colletti), conspiracy buff Auggie (Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Gabriel Rush), worrier Chuck (Austin Zagur) are just trying to make it through high school. Halloween night, they egg and fecal-bomb bullying jock Tommy (Brad’s Status‘ Austin Abrams), leading to a drive-in meeting with Ramon (Mockingjay Part 1‘s Michael Garza) and an exploration of the old Bellows mansion, waking the ghost of long-dead scary storyteller Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). The five teens, along with Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), are then subjected one by one to fresh stories in Sarah’s book that write themselves as they happen in real life, leading to a tense climax on the night of Nixon’s re-election.
Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark short story trilogy serves as the basis for and backbone of the new horror film of the same name from Norwegian director Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter & The Autopsy of Jane Doe), executive producer Guillermo del Toro, and writers Dan and Kevin Hageman. In particular, six stories – “Harold”, “The Big Toe”, “The Red Spot”, “The Dream”, “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker”, and “The Haunted House” – are interwoven to form the plot, somewhat like 2015’s Goosebumps (minus the meta and self-referential narrative). What also sets the two horror adaptations apart from one another is the aforementioned historical setting, the exploration of the power of stories, and the human – rather than full-on supernatural – monsters (the latter two of which come into play in the third act). The inclusion of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and backdrop of Nixon and the raging Vietnam War help to set the tone, as well as remove modem horror contrivances from the film (smartphones, mostly). However, a fair amount of the dialogue – despite a passing anti-immigrant racist slur – feels rather modern.
As a horror film, Scary Stories is an effective gateway for younger audiences. Classic 1950s horror movie posters and a drive-in double feature help here. The scares are both minimally gory and practical – to an extent. There is some body horror and a slight jump scare or two, mostly shot close-up by DP Roman Osin, enough to put a little fear into younger audience members. The practical creature work is effective (but the CG – when necessary – stands out), thanks to designs that capture Stephen Gammell’s illustrations and some go-to performers – Stranger Things‘ Mark Steger as Harold, IT‘s Javier Botet as the corpse from “The Big Toe”, and Hellboy‘s Troy James as the Jangly Man. However, the film isn’t without some issues – mostly with some tropes that include the underutilization of Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, and Fast Color‘s Lorraine Toussaint as Lou Lou, an elderly woman with a connection to the Bellows family. It’s great to see some African American representation in a period horror film, but seeing more diverse characters (including Ramon) in non-trope roles would certainly continue to break some ground in the genre.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t reinvent the horror (or teen horror) genre, but still provides some good scares that honor the original source material and may result in a resurgence of the short story trilogy. Additionally, the overarching exploration of the power and impact of stories (and how people, not monsters, are the real monsters) sets it apart from the pack.