I’ve liked horror films for as long as I can remember. Whether or not I should have been watching these movies at a young age, whether it was Halloween, Child’s Play, or The Bad Seed, I was brought up with an appreciation for the genre. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark feels like the kind of film I could have happily grown up with. It’s got a nice handle on tension and monster elements, without being terribly frightening. At the same time, the level of spookiness is enough to work for a younger crowd, perhaps using this movie as a gateway film. While more fun than essential, I found this adaptation to be a real cinematic page-turner.
Admittedly, I have not read any of the short stories originally written by Alvin Schwartz, but I know enough to find the approach to this film interesting. Rather than structure Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as an anthology film, the writers and producer Guillermo del Toro found it best to incorporate several of the stories into one linear narrative. As a result, fans may spot many easter eggs pointing to other stories, but the film brings in some of the more famous shorts such as “The Big Toe,” “The Red Spot,” and “Harold.”
From an outsider perspective, I appreciated the variety of horror stories being told. Yes, most amount to some monster slowly creeping its way towards an intended victim, but director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) embraced the chance to bring a different visual style to these major moments of the film. Whether playing around with the colors and production design, or with the use of sound to best emphasize the horrific and morbidly comedic nature of the “Jangly Man,” here’s a film indebted to many others. Those filmmakers looking to have fun bringing many ideas together for one fun ride of a movie did so with plenty of great inspirations.
The setting is also refreshing. With so many films capitalizing on nostalgia (particularly the 80s), Scary Stories shifts things to 1968 small-town Pennsylvania. As the Vietnam War looms over a younger generation seeing the American dream become far more complex, the film brings together a few friends on a supernatural journey. While perhaps not incredibly defined, there’s something about the heightened nature of these characters that had me enjoying them, even if Zoe Colletti’s geeky Stella is clearly responsible for causing trouble by being too nosy.
It is the larger narrative that ends up being only so effective. On Halloween, Stella, along with tidy Auggie (Gabriel Rush), slobbish Chuck (Austin Zajur), and their newest friend Ramon (Michael Garza) head into an old, abandoned mansion at the edge of town. Looking to find evidence of the supposed tortured women who turned her life into a series of scary stories (supposedly written in children’s blood), they manage to find a book detailing twisted events. Trouble intensifies as the book begins writing new stories seemingly on its own, where Stella and her friends are the subjects.
That’s a fine way to bring together multiple stories, but it also means testing the audience’s patience by going the Scooby-Doo route of discovery. To tell a story like this, and create urgency, it means following along with these teens, as they try to understand what’s making the book create such malevolent events. As a result, it means the film relies on the chemistry between these characters, as well as other hit or miss developments.
Accepting the broad direction given to these kids, I didn’t mind their interactions. Whether hanging out or getting on each other’s nerves, there’s fun to be had here. Less so can be said for some of the encounters with others. One involves a visit to an older black woman’s home, played well enough by Lorrain Toussaint in a brief appearance, but making me question such an old-fashioned choice when it comes to the use of people of color in these kinds of stories.
It’s a strange element to look at, given the deliberate focus on Garza’s Ramon, and how the more loathsome characters in this film react to him. It’s all the more important given the intentional choice in time period and constant reminder of Nixon’s upcoming Presidential election. I guess times are a changin’ but the “magical negro” is here to stay.
However, beyond the allusions attempting to be made by the filmmakers, there’s plenty more going on with the push towards teen-friendly scares, along with plenty of effective creature designs. Thanks to a terrific handle on practical make-up effects, and haunting monster performances, the old-fashioned vibe of the film works in its favor when it comes to developing an eerie sense of dread. I still think the movie is too much fun to be all that scary. And yet, with a concentration on careful camera work and tension over gory payoffs, it was exciting to watch various campfire stories coming to life.
I wish the film ended better. While the climax features the Jangly Man, a creature design so exciting the CG factor didn’t bother me, along with some fun haunted house subversions, I was not thrilled by the epilogue. To go on an effective journey, only for the film to deliver a mixed message regarding its thematic imagery is troublesome for a movie that’s gotten by on its fun factor.
Still, there’s a lot to like here on an aesthetic level, and how we see the big “Scary Stories” moments unfold. A number of the horror gags allow for evocative imagery very fitting for a film adapted from books just as notable for the artwork by Stephen Gammell. The time in between the frights may not always be the most engaging material, but I was happy enough with this cast and the overall approach that it’s easy to applaud the work put in to bring horror to mainstream audiences. Given how much I enjoy the genre, it’s nice to see a movie making it clear there’s always room for one more.