Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Stories have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover the terrifying tome of a young girl with horrible secrets.

Stars: Zoe Colletti, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.

The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists.  Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well.  Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.

I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light.  It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.

While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.

On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.

It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now.  If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.

As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title.  Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up.  A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark


Synopsis: It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time—stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.

Release Date: August 9, 2019

Thoughts: I can still vividly picture the covers of the three books that comprise the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark canon. I can also close my eyes and remember how my mind would play tricks on me long after I had finished a story, concocting various ways for the fictional tales of terror to become reality.  Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) produces this big screen adaptation directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and the presence of these two guys with an eye for scares tell me to brace myself for more tingles up my spine.  This first look at the period set film isn’t at all what I was expecting and it feels like the movie will have some creepy images but may struggle in…other areas.  Still, the youngster in me is more than a little excited to see these stories come to life after all these years.

Movie Review ~ Secret in Their Eyes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A tight-knit team of rising investigators, along with their supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly

Director: Billy Ray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s always a funny thing to me when a well-respected foreign film gets remade for US audiences.  The US versions are frequently inferior, often lacking the risk taking afforded by films produced outside of the Hollywood system that’s more concerned with overall mass marketability than transferring the themes and ideas of its inspiration to American audiences.

So it’s no big shock that this North American remake of the South American thriller El Secreto de sus ojos doesn’t quite hit the same kind of riveting bullseye that propelled the original to be a surprise Best Foreign Film winner at the 2009 Academy Awards.  Based on a Spanish novel, the original film was a dark tale taking place in two different time periods with the same brutal murder the central focus of each.

Originally intended to feature Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts when the remake took shape back in 2011, it would be another four years for Secret in their Eyes to finally see the light of day and by the time cameras were ready to roll Washington and Paltrow were out and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman were in.  In some ways, the extra time and casting shake-up might have helped the film overall because by putting some distance between the original and altering the structure of its trio of leads (not to mention changing the gender completely of one character) I felt the movie was able to stand on its own quite capably.

In present day 2015, Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is a former cop now working in private security for a NY baseball team that’s been haunted by a murder investigation involving his former partner (Robets, August: Osage County) 13 years earlier.  Thinking he’s stumbled upon a fresh lead for the case long since considered closed, he returns to California in hopes that his ally in the justice system (Kidman, Stoker) will re-open the case based on the new evidence.

All three players reunite early on and though they’ve taken different paths in the ensuing years, the lasting effect of this case clearly still holds something over them.  Roberts’ only child was the murder victim, found in a dumpster next to a mosque under investigation by the counter-terrorist unit she and Ejiofor are assigned to. Kidman was the young District Attorney supervisor new to her job that quickly gets in over her head with her colleagues when she strays too close to slicing through some political red tape involving her boss (a smarmy Alfred Molina, Monsters University).

Writer/director Billy Ray (Oscar nominated for his script for Captain Phillips and a helluva long way from his first script, the lurid Color of Night from 1994) adds some interesting hints of police corruption, but then again the past storyline is set in 2002 when the country was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and law enforcement officials were tasked with getting answers no matter the cost.  At first, I felt that complexity took away some of the forward momentum of the case but Ray manages to tie it together nicely.

This seems like a passion project for Roberts (her husband was the cinematographer) and to her credit she dives head first into the mix as a woman preoccupied by the death of her daughter, riding the fine line between wanting justice and wanting vengeance…something the film makes very clear are two different things.  One character describes Roberts as looking “a million years old” and without a stich of make-up on Roberts is far away from the glamorous beauty that graces magazine covers.  Yet it never feels false, like she’s trying to be something she doesn’t have somewhere deep inside.  Roberts has to go to some dark places and she’s never anything but totally convincing with her pursed lips and tightly wound demeanor.

Ejiofor and Kidman have a trickier road to travel, nimbly working with the overt hints at a brewing romance rekindled as they work together to piece together the clues that might lead them to a killer.  Ejiofor favors overzealous reactions that feel showy but gets grounded when opposite Kidman with whom he has intriguing chemistry.  Kidman has the grace and poise to pull off the character and perhaps more than anyone feels like a wholly changed person in the present day sequences.

Viewers are advised to pay close attention to the time shifts because they can be confusing.  The best advice I can offer is to keep your eye on Kidman’s hair which is long in the past and short in the present.  The movie doesn’t always make it clear when action is taking place and at my screening several people were confused at the timeline of events.

The Spanish film had a whopper of a sequence set in a soccer stadium that starts as an approaching aerial shot then journeying into the stands before following a breathless chase between officer and suspect.  Seemingly captured in one long shot (it’s likely impossible but I can’t tell where the cuts happen) it alone was Oscar worthy in its execution.  Changing the sport from soccer to baseball, the remake doesn’t even try to attempt to recreate this, but the edge-of-your-seat chase still gets the job done.

It’s a tough film for all the right reasons.  I won’t reveal if the real killer is ever identified or how it wraps itself up but I had forgotten some of the details of how the original film ended, leaving me to discover the fine finale all over again.  I still think remakes are ill-advised, but once in a while one slips through that’s able to capitalize on why its inspiration was worthy of a Hollywood effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Men, Women & Children

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Synopsis: A look at the sexual frustrations that young teenagers and adults face in today’s world.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: Earlier in 2014 Jason Reitman had what some consider his first real stumble with the coolly received Labor Day.  I was one of the few that seemed to absolve it from its awkward assembly and languid pacing because it’s clear that Reitman is a filmmaker that knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to say.  With October’s Men, Women & Children, Reitman is taking a page from the American Beauty experience and digging under the perfect veneer of a suburbia and its inhabitants.  With its tantalizing images played over a silky update of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, I get the feeling Men, Women & Children has the potential to truly put Reitman on the A list if handled correctly.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Counselor

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Synopsis: A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.

Release Date:  October 25, 2013

Thoughts: Three time Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Thelma & Louise, Alien) is one of my most trusted directors not because he’s been involved with some of my favorite films but because he’s never been one to be locked in a box.  Comfortable with drama as much as he is with muscle-y bravado action films he’s willing to take risks with material usually to strong results.  In The Counselor, he’s assembled a truly A-List cast to bring prolific author Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay to life.  McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men inspired a truly haunting film that deservedly won Best Picture in 2008.  I’m not sure The Counselor will be going after that big prize but with a cast this impressive teaming up with Scott and McCarthy…this is a movie to get excited for.