If you grew up anywhere between the ’80s and the early 2000s, you probably obsessed over the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books at least once in your young life. How could you not, with the striking art work and the simple yet effective stories of the macabre? There is no denying the series meant a lot to blossoming horror geeks; I myself can trace my love for the genre back to reading these books as a kid.
So it’s surprising filmmakers never even attempted up until this point to bring Alvin Schwartz’s creations to the big screen, but it makes sense; how do you take short, unconnected stories and make them into a feature film?
That brings us to 2019 film adaption of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. With director André Øvredal at the wheel and the legendary Guillermo del Toro producing, there is no better duo to try and take a crack at adapting the legendary series of stories for the big screen.
Is it perfect? No, far from it. Is it a good time at the movies? Definitely.
The plot, while not perfect, gets the job done: a bunch of teenagers find old child murderer Sarah Bellows’ book of scary stories in her spooky, abandoned house, and unleash their subjects onto the town. Voila. At its core, this is basically a PG-13 version of the Goosebumps movie which works, for the most part.
The film is at its strongest when focusing on Schwartz’s stories; you have “Harold,” “The Big Toe,” “The Red Spot,” and a few others making appearances. The creature designs are ripped right from the iconic art work by Stephen Gammell, and Øvredal nails the tone of the books with each sequence, ranging from the body horror of the Jangly Man to the monster from “The Dream.” These scenes are exciting, intense, and surprisingly fun. When the horror starts is when Scary Stories comes alive.
Unfortunately, all of that built up terror at times halts when we jump back into an unnecessarily muddled plot that forcefully connects the stories. The inclusion of the Sarah Bellows storyline is contrived to say the least, and includes a conspiracy plot that is neither necessary nor explored enough to ever become relevant. With a tacked on draft-dodging subplot and Dean Norris trying his best to bring anything to his role other than ‘sad dad,’ there’s a lot going on for a film that really didn’t need anything more than the stories themselves.
It doesn’t help that our characters seem even less interested than the audience. Only in the beginning is there a sense of camaraderie between our group of misfits, which unfortunately fizzles out once shit starts hitting the fan. It’s a shame, really, as those first 30 minutes contain some of the best material this film has to offer. It’s obvious the success of Stranger Things and It was taken into consideration, but this amounts to feeling like a knock off of its predecessors.
Though not perfect, a lot of these attempts to add more complexities to the story are, overall, commendable at the end of the day. Like previous del Toro pictures, Scary Stories pants the horror over a backdrop of political tension. With the film set in November of ’68 during the height of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s election, there is a real sense of weight to the world. Some want to go fight the ‘Commies,’ while others detest ‘Tricky Dicky.’ It’s in those moments that there are hints of a much more interesting and elaborate story than the one we are given, as if we are missing a quarter of the script.
The politics are never pushed too far, but in a way I wish they were. It feels like they were scratching the surface of an interesting allegory between the tales in Bellows’ book and the world in which they were set. Teasing the promise of something deeper yet never getting there hurt to watch, but it’s forgivable. At least they tried!
Even with the adult-oriented themes, Scary Stories is through and through a horror movie for kids. The dialogue is very juvenile and not far removed from shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and the scares never go farther than a hard PG-13; in this way, it bridges a gap between younger and veteran horror fans.
Any experienced horror geek will have a sense of “been there, done that” walking out of Scary Stories, but for that 10 to 12-year-old who hasn’t seen anything scarier than Goosebumps, this will blow their fucking mind. In that, I’m happy a movie like Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark exists. I can only imagine a kid walking out of this film and going home ecstatic to watch the classics now that they have a taste for the genre.
For all of its shortcomings and rough patches, Scary Stories really is a blast. André Øvredal does the original books justice, and adds enough of his own signature flair to make this stand out from the rest of the studio juggernauts. And while a lot of it doesn’t work, it tried to do something new instead of copying and pasting, and that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark won’t go down in horror movie history, but it will introduce a whole new generation to the genre just like the books did for me years ago. That alone should warrant praise.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
dir. Andre Ovredal
Opens everywhere Friday, 8/9 (though the Hassle recommends the Capitol, Apple Cinemas, or your local independent multiplex)