Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

What did you do for Halloween growing up as a kid? Did you make your own costume? Did you get to go out with friends? Did you curse at old scarecrows and steal candy? Hopefully not that last one (poor Tommy…), but the point is that this movie represents a sense of nostalgia at it’s core. And not only for having fun on Halloween or just being a kid, but for many people it’s the source material. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adapted screenplay from a trilogy of books written by Alvin Schwartz between 1981 and 1991. The stories were created from folklore and represent a gateway to horror for young readers. Although I never read the books myself, I know that I’ve heard re-tellings of several stories around campfires late at night (pretty sure my older brother read from one of the books at one time and scared me good). This film doesn’t represent as much nostalgia for me though, not being too attached to the books, and I think that both allows me to see the movie without holding onto memories while I also fail to see the true connection made between these artistic mediums. My review stands in this predicament, but nonetheless there were things I appreciated about the movie, yet as a whole it did not strike me as a film that was altogether enjoyable.
In the film, a group of misfit teenagers find themselves in a haunted house on Halloween night, one that used to belong to the Bellows family. Everyone in town knows the story: The house has a history, since the entire family all but disappeared and the youngest daughter Sarah was institutionalized and hung herself after allegedly being responsible for the deaths of several local children. Now the story goes that if you ask Sarah to tell you a story, you can hear her voice in the walls. The group stumbles upon Sarah’s rumored book where she wrote her own stories. But they take no caution, and after asking Sarah for a story…she delivers. One at a time, the book writes new stories in the blood of her victims, and the kids must work fast to learn the truth about what really happened all those years ago and stop Sarah before it’s too late.
My recurring thought throughout the movie was that it seemed more aimed at a younger audience, which was confirmed in my research shortly after via interviews with director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and also Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), one of the screenwriters. They wanted to continue in the attempt of the books to draw in younger readers, except this time it is to introduce them to the genre of horror. The movie strays from going over-the-top in any regard. The scares are few and spread out and the monsters look fantastic (thanks del Toro) but are more spooky than gory. There is a sense of dread in the story, but it doesn’t quite ring in at a terror level like you find in most horror films. In this respect, I appreciate what Øvredal does with the film, and as a fan of horror myself I sincerely hope that the movie accomplishes it’s goal. The actors playing the group of teenagers are all relatively newer in their Hollywood careers, and they did a fine job but it wasn’t refined acting. It’s understandable, but again kids watching this movie won’t really care. If they’re there in the theatre, it’s either because they were either dragged along by an older sibling or more likely because they saw a monster or two in the trailer and begged someone to take them. And along with all the nostalgia nerds, those kids are who this film was made for.
Speaking of monsters, I liked the look of these ones. My favorite was “Jangly Man,” and man does he jangle! They were all pretty spooky in their own way. The movement of each was unique, as was the way they did away with their victims. None of the kills were gory (oftentimes a crutch used in horror movies) but rather creative, much like what I read about the original stories. In addition to the monsters though, the movie was backdropped with broader horrors: Vietnam War and the draft, the election and anxiety of the unknown, bullying and racism, and familial traumas. Each of the characters are propped up with these broader horrors and it helps to round them out and evoke a sense of sympathy for where they find themselves even before they find Sarah’s book. Particularly Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) has found herself succumbing to the horror of a broken family and self-blame. Her newfound nightmare provides her the opportunity to become the hero of her own story and write an ending that doesn’t claim her as the victim any longer. Also, the movie may or may not set itself up for a sequel…
The thing I enjoy most about this movie is that it was well written, well directed, and aims to bring in new fans to a fascinating and increasingly diverse genre. It’s an easy gateway film if you’re unsure of whether or not you want to see it, and although I won’t recommend it based on acting and plot, it does have a lot to offer in style and execution. I haven’t seen either of Øvredal’s other films (although I have scrolled past them on Netflix many times) but after seeing his care to bring an old story to new light, I have an interest to watch them. Maybe there’ll be a future double review of them…? Speaking of reviews, I’ll try to get another streaming review up in the next few days since it’s been a while. Cheers!

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