Synopsis – A group of teens face their fears in order to save their lives.
My Take – Growing up in the Middle East, I have been largely unfamiliar with the source material of this latest horror film. For the intended, Alvin Schwartz was a prolific American author who wrote numerous short horror stories for children and teenagers. Stories which also featured Stephen Gammell‘s various imaginative and terrifying illustrations that have been successfully traumatizing its readers since its publication back in 1981.
While big screen adaptations of beloved horror books usually tend to be disappointing, this film gained my peculiar interest with the attachment of the man of monsters himself, Guillermo del Toro, who co-produced and co-wrote this flick.
The beloved Mexican filmmaker has a love for projects relating to horror, fantasy, and family, often blending them together to great effect. And one of the major intentions del Toro has had for this film was for it to serve as an introduction into the world of horror for a younger audiences.
Produced for an audiences that felt as they were too mature to embrace the Goosebumps film but were also not quite ready to take on Pennywise’s IT due to its gory content and disturbing imagery. Helmed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), this film is actually quite a decent passageway for teens, as it does well by exhibiting bloodless horror sequences that are also effectively terrifying for its audience.
Sure, the film does not reach the next level of unease and horror the trailers of the film happened to tease at, but personally I was quite impressed by how well the flick managed to creep me out with its fantastic imagery.
While I am sure many will also find the story way too formulaic in structure, the film succeeds in ominously foreboding scenes, implementing classic jump scares, and bringing forth genuinely gross and terrifying moments well enough to delight fans and non-fans alike.
Instead of simply presenting the stories as an anthology, here the film creates a story of its own that contains the short ones from the books, and sets itself in the small American town of Mill Valley during the turbulent year of 1968, the era of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s election and follows Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti), a High school nerd and aspiring writer, who is suffering angst over her mother abandoning her, and insists on staying home, tending to her dad (Dean Norris), despite Halloween.
However, her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) convince her to join them in carrying out their perfect plan to seek vengeance on head bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) and his gang for previous torments. While they succeed, they are forced to make a run for it, and find refuge in the company of Ramón (Michael Garza), a drifter and his car.
To live out the rest of the night in excitement, the four decide to explore the famous abandoned Bellows mansion. Supposedly haunted by Stella Bellows, who was apparently different in some mysterious way, and was kept locked in the basement room. With her only source of contact to the outside world being the walls of her room, through which she told curious local children scary stories.
Unfortunately, many of those children mysteriously died which eventually led to Sarah hanging herself. While cruising through, Stella and Ramón find the secret room where Sarah lived, along with her book of stories, which was said to have been written in the blood of the children she purportedly killed. Curious about the stories, Stella takes the book home, hereby awakening Sarah’s vengeful spirit.
As a result, anyone who was in the Bellows house at the time becomes a target including Tommy and Chuck’s older sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). One by one, new stories featuring each of them appear magically in Sarah’s book, and begin playing out in the real world, from Harold the scarecrow and a corpse looking for its missing big toe, to the Jangly Man and the Pale Lady.
Right from the opening scene, the film immediately shook off one of my biggest concerns, and that was figuring out a way to blend a collection of short stories into an overarching narrative. The screenplay written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, from a story conjured up by producer Guillermo del Toro and the team of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (The Collector, Saw IV, Saw V), does a very efficient job of establishing the characters, setting, and tone of the film, and it feels perfectly in place with the stories.
The books play as perfect fodder for del Toro, whose visually distinctive work has often centered on fairy tales and fantasy (Pan’s Labyrinth), classic horror (Crimson Peak, Mama), monsters (Hellboy, The Shape of Water), and alike.
As for director Øvredal, it’s a step up in ambition and execution from his last film as director, the unfortunately little-seen The Autopsy of Jane Doe, as he impressively conjures up the scares. The film doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares, but rather it makes you feel uncomfortable with atmosphere, repulsive imagery, and creepy monsters.
For a film that’s designed for kids, this one actually leaves with a pretty solid impression. Here, director Øvredal pays respect to author Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s illustrations as the creatures are brilliantly translated to the big screen with terrifying effects (some more effective than others). Whenever a story is written, the fun really kicks into high gear. The sequences are well choreographed and they benefit from the dark cinematography and framework that plays around the target character’s fear, with shots putting you in their headspace, allowing the horror be pulse-pounding, and the creature’s signature ability that makes them as scary as they are.
In addition to the main plot of the terrible book that’s making people disappear, there’s a well-told story of small-town racism during the Vietnam era and the story of a family struggling with an important loss. While these aren’t the primary focus of the film, they do add an extra layer that makes you care about the characters more.
However, the film’s flaws lie within the conventionally formulaic story that fails to make a valuable impression. Despite the array of creatures presented, the story gets too repetitive for its own good that it also becomes a bit disjointed, not delivering the dramatic points at the appropriate moments, disrupting the tone.
Maybe anthologies would’ve worked best for this, for that’s a narrative format most popular in horror that barely gets to see the light of day. This would’ve been a perfect story to do that with, especially to distinguish itself from other horror films of this nature.
Arguably, that’s not the ultimate intention, as the film’s target audience is young adults and those just getting into horror, but that mildness still feels like a letdown. It also feels grating when the finale swerves conspicuously towards franchise territory, letting go of what feels earnest about the story for the sake of ensuring the opportunity for sequel money down the line.
The performances are also quite decent. Zoe Colletti is terrific, while Michael Garza does a fantastic job. Austin Zajur and Gabriel Rush play the perfect sidekicks. In smaller roles, Austin Abrams, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows and Lorraine Toussaint are also effective. On the whole, ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is an effectively creepy horror film with enough eerie style to keep you entertained.
Directed – André Øvredal
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 111 minutes