Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

by Andrew Parker

Visually astounding, but narratively sloppy and tiresome, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in no way improves upon its creepy source material. A tonally jarring mishmash of ideas that refuses to let the frequently banned stories of Alvin Schwartz speak for themselves, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark never makes up its mind on what kind of pre-teen horror movie it’s trying to be or what it’s even trying to set up. It’s reliably directed, lovingly designed, and reasonably well performed by its young cast, but it’s also relentlessly boring and plodding when it should be a non-stop thrill ride full of ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and creepy-crawlies. It looks like a film that has had a lot of time and money poured into its construction, but it’s as shallow as an empty kiddie pool at the end of a summer drought.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is set in 1968, during the week-or-so between Halloween and Election Day, in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. A trio of nerdy friends – shy, horror loving Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who lives with her emotionally ailing single dad (Dean Norris), the hyperactive Chuck (Austin Zajur), and Augie (Gabriel Rush), who’s sort of the smart one, I guess – decide that they’re going to get back at their biggest bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), a douchey and perpetually sweaty Varsity footballer who can’t wait till he’s eighteen so he can leave town and legally kill people in the Vietnam War. After their revenge is mildly successful, they receive some help and protection from Ramon (Michael Garza), a kindly young drifter passing through town, and together they make their way to a supposedly haunted house. The decaying property was owned in the late 19th century by the wealthiest family in town, the Bellows, whose daughter Sarah famously went insane and was kept locked away in a secret room. Town legend says that Sarah would lure youngsters to the exterior walls of the mansion and read them spooky stories that she kept in a book written in the blood of children. The teens break in, find the room, find the book, and not long after that, Sarah starts producing new stories from beyond the grave. Faster than one could say, “This worked well enough for Goosebumps and Final Destination, so let’s just do both at the same time,” the stories start coming to life and the monsters within them start picking off anyone who was there that night, one by one.

The joy of Schwartz’s macabre, exquisitely detailed short stories is that they were so visceral and unnerving – aided immensely by Stephen Gammell’s evocative, dream-like, and disarmingly artful illustrations – that they left readers wanting more. They kept you up at night based on how good they were. By ditching the short story concept and stringing a bunch of ideas together within a hastily constructed plot line that’s too convoluted for an entire season of a television series, Short Stories to Tell in the Dark ultimately leaves one wanting less. None of the heroes or the monsters that are terrifying them are given much room to breathe, with each set piece awkwardly crashing into each other, and yet somehow it all still feels like an eternity to sit through all of this.

Produced by Guillermo del Toro (who also receives a story credit, and who probably should’ve been allowed to write the entire screenplay), directed by André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and penned by animation veterans Dan and Kevin Hagerman, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has a solid pedigree, but also feels like a case of having too many warring cooks in the kitchen. While the plot is ripping off Goosebumps, Final Destination, and Are You Afraid of the Dark wholesale, it’s clear that someone very influential with the production of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark wants this to be more like Stranger Things for the late 1960s. The period details are numerous and frequently gorgeous to dote upon, but they add little to the actual story itself. Similarly, like most Netflix series and Stranger Things in particular, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes a long time to get its various balls rolling, spending far too much time off the top dumping characters traits, quirks, and familial situations that are never explored and only seem to be on hand so the actors aren’t playing literal cardboard cutouts. We have to sit through scenes where we’re introduced to Augie and Chuck’s families – including the latter’s pretty sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), who becomes one of the book’s targets – and it seems like it all might be going somewhere, but it never does. Similarly, the troubles of Ramon and Stella are so thinly drawn, yet handled with unbelievable sincerity that one wonders why they even bothered in the first place.

I have some theories as to why the characters are so limp, but they all point back to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark being a lot more ambitious on the initial page than it turns out to be on screen. As Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark moves forward towards the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, it’s clear that someone along the way (I’m guessing del Toro) wanted to take this material rather seriously as a metaphor for race relations in America and the Vietnam War, with that drum getting beaten louder and louder the longer the film stretches out. It might’ve worked if the film was actually scary or the characters had been organically fleshed out instead of just having various traits stapled onto the script. Even the story itself doesn’t know when to let up, eventually including subplots about the closing of the local paper mill and voodoo rituals. Between the subtext and the desire to ape some of the more successful teen oriented film and television offerings from recent memory, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark forgets to forge its own identity, and neglects almost everything that made the books so impactful and worthwhile.

What we’re left with is a bunch of standard jump scares (replete with sometimes laughably sanitized and bloodless violence that cuts away at awkward moments to avoid anything worse than a PG-13 rating) and a plot where otherwise smart people do incredibly stupid and out of character things because there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t. To his credit, Øvredal is directing the living hell out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and his young cast (particularly Colletti, Garza, and Abrams) are doing everything they can to sell the material.

Øvredal has a certain way with his immaculately designed set pieces that would be effective if you’re young and simply looking for a release, but is deathly for adults who don’t scare easily. Øvredal loves to drag out his scares with far too lengthy and teasing patches of silence before hitting viewers with that “gotcha” moment. It’s well done, but so cliche that these moments are hard to buy into when every scary scene hinges upon the same reveals over and over again. I admire the craft that goes into making them, but unless you jump out of your skin at the sound of someone knocking over a coffee cup, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will do nothing for you. Since the investment in the characters is minimal and perfunctory, all that’s left are the shocks, and they certainly can’t paper over the rest of the material’s shortcomings, especially when it all builds to jaw-droppingly awful sequel bait at the end, which is flat out infuriating after the lazy plotting that came before it.

There’s plenty of style to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Øvredal populates the film with some nicely evocative shots (even when some of the scenes, like many modern horrors, are too darkly lit to see anything), and the cinematography from Roman Osin (who also memorably shot the similarly well designed Autopsy of Jane Doe) is exceptional and far beyond what most pre-teen horror flicks achieve. The production design and make-up departments deserve A’s for their efforts. The creatures, which aren’t really explained and don’t need to be (ranging from an angry scarecrow, to a blob-like woman with a face that only meme lovers could adore, to “the Jangly Man”), are the best thing about the movie, effectively reimagining the nightmarish imagery from the books. The actual ghost of Sarah Bellows is pretty standard, boring looking stuff, but all of the other poltergeists and monsters on display are top notch. They style outweighs the substance here by a wide margin, and that’s actually a good thing.

If it wasn’t for the engaging performances and how good the whole thing looks, I would’ve checked out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark after about twenty minutes. I understand that Øvredal and del Toro are trying to cater to a younger audience here, but there’s a fine line between courting and outright pandering that’s continually crossed. It feels every bit like a film where there were endless behind-the-scenes conversations about what “the kids today want” to see. I think they’d want to see a genuinely scary movie with some effort put into the characters and their plights, and this isn’t that kind of movie.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, August 9, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark:

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