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
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.