There are several decades between me and my Scholastic Book Fair days. But, even now, those memories are still an elementary school high point. Picking up Clive Barker’s Thief of Always, Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were undoubtedly formative for me. On the bright side so much time has passed since those book fair glory days that I was able to go into this film adaptation with little to no expectation at all, which I believe assisted in my view of the film’s bigger picture.
The story opens up on the small town of Mills Valley on Halloween. The towns folk are rushing about doing their thing in all the forms of quaintness. The setting within the first ten minutes of the film began to solidify a natural admiration for the vibe that was being exuded. Shades of King’s New England mixed with equal parts Hocus Pocus lined the frames and created a warm and welcoming intro.
The story eventually centers on Stella (Zoe Margaret Collletti), a horror-obsessed, aspiring writer who is reluctant to head out into town with her friends on Halloween. After some convincing, she and her friends head out to a haunted house for some spookins. After, Stella regales her group of friends with the history of the old house and the haunting story of Sarah Bellows, they stumble upon a mysterious book belonging to Bellows before leaving the old house with book in tow.
Much like LeMarchand’s box in Hellraiser, the book begins to unleash terrors of its own volition by self-scribbling stories on blank pages. Stories that come true and befall any of the children who were unfortunate enough to have stepped foot in the Bellows Mansion that night.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s framing device is very similar to Trick r’ Treat’s. With each story’s connective tissue rooted in the overreaching story of Stella and her pals. A nice play on the cut and dry approach to classic anthologies that introduce a bare bones setting in which each respective story is given its 20 to 30-minute runtime.
The biggest “how are they going to do that?” moment I had when I first heard about the film dealt with the the approach to the film’s structure. Either, it was going to be standalone tales in a classic anthology format, which raised concerns that these micro stories wouldn’t be enough to stand on their own, or it was going to be something that was smart enough to glue the pieces together organically.
Luckily, it was the latter. Classic ghost story sensibilities of east and west are both at play in Stella’s story. Pepper in Schwartz’s stories with some gnarly special effects to match Stephen Gammell’s memorable book illustrations and the whole thing is a package of playful scares and heart.
The kids in this film are really good and well-directed. Unlike, the kids of IT who felt less organic and more like a caricature of what a writer’s room felt kids should be like according to the popularity of Stranger Things. The young talent here fit all the beats of friendship and adolescence making the entire thing feel grounded and relatable.
The film is also surprisingly set against against Nixon’s election, the Vietnam war and surrounding draft. One of the films protagonists, Ramón Morales (Michael Garza) is even revealed to be a draft dodger at one point. Meanwhile, the through line of black and white tv images reporting news on Nixon and the status of the war are strewn about the films runtime. Timely subtext for what is currently going on in Mexico. The comparison of youth being slaughtered in a narrative that is being written for them is exacting and poignant. I’m interested to know if producer, Guillermo Del Toro had anything to do with that aspect of the story coming together.
The film’s best moments come from it’s creatively interwoven short stories. The Jangly man and Big Toe Stew both representing the feeling that I had when reading the book as a kid. Creepy, but fun and something I looked forward to revisiting. The Jangly Man in particular is a complete ride. From it’s special effects to its approach to the Jangly Man’s design, the last fifteen min of the film are all the more bizarre and unnerving because of him. A scene involving The Jangly Man falling into cadaverous quarters is easily one for 2019’s most rad points of horror imagery.
And director, André Øverdal is no stranger to nailing terrifying imagery and capturing horror beats. His film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, is a complete, brilliant contained creep fest and was one of the high points of horror the year of its release. In Scary Stories, he takes his feel for terror and his obvious love of the source material and applies it in an exceedingly successful approach.
With most films these days there is a couple of CGI scenes that are pretty painful to watch. Not cause of the pain the characters are experiencing but because of the cheap look of some of the films big moments. There is a scene involving hundreds of spiders, that looks like it was made around the days of the Scorpion King. However, not all FX are bad. It picks and chooses when to up the effort. The stuff with The Jangly Man for example is full of rad hits and some bad misses. Total practical FX would have gone a long way here but it seems this just where we are headed sadly.
I really love that Scary Stories is for everyone. All sexes, all ages, everyone. I also love that it’s simultaneously working on different levels and paying respect to different works of cinematic ghost story past in the arenas of east and west. It manages to do all that while keeping fans of the original short stories happy and offering a heck of a social commentary message. It was definitely a surprise. It’s a propulsive blast of nostalgia, chills and fun. Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark, builds an exciting bridge between adult horror and kids gateway horror. This is absolutely something I would have wanted my parents to take me to see. It is easily going to be a yearly Halloween re-watch.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is out Aug. 9 in theaters everywhere.