[Early Review] [31 Days of Horror Part VI: Jason Lives] Day 17 – Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Luke Wilson

Screenplay: Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

99 mins. Rated R for bloody violence, language throughout, some drug and sexual content.

 

It’s been a crazy ten years, and we are finally arriving, once again, back in Zombieland.

Zombieland: Double Tap picks up some years after the first film, and our favorite zombie killers have arrived at a comfortable life in a luxurious new home. They are not without their struggles, though. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and Wichita (Emma Stone, La La Land, The Croods) have gotten past the honeymoon phase of their relationship, and Wichita especially is having a lot of trouble with the idea of settling down with Columbus. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, The Highwaymen, TV’s True Detective) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine, Freak Show) have developed a father-daughter regard for one another, but Little Rock pines to interact with someone new, to begin dating boys, whereas Tallahassee would prefer the solitude of Zombieland life. So when Little Rock runs away with a cute boy, the others must band together to save  her.

I’ll make this one super-simple. If you liked Zombieland, I think you’ll enjoy this one. It isn’t as good as the original film, but it’s very self-reflective on the time that has passed culturally and a lot of the humor comes from the idea that these characters really haven’t changed much in that time. It’s regularly poking fun at itself.

The cast does a fine job again, especially Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee. Harrelson really matures as an actor in this role, and his is the one character that seems to really evolve to something new. All that being said, though, the best parts of this film are the new additions of Zoey Deutch (Set It Up, TV’s The Politician) and Rosario Dawson (Rent, Reign of the Supermen) to the cast. Deutch’s Madison steals every scene as a clueless woo girl that’s supremely ditzy and made me question how she could even survive this long in the apocalypse. Dawson joins up as the tough-as-nails Nevada, who lives in a bar that gets a visit from the gang. Both add a lot of flavor to the film.

The film is a little too convenient at times, and the additions of new zombies (very Left 4 Dead), new rules (not just by Columbus), and new zombie kills, while fun, don’t add a level of newness to the film. If this had come out right after the first film, I think it would not be as noticeable, but given that ten-year gap, I think the similarities stand out. Still better than the Amazon pilot, though.

Zombieland: Double Tap is fun for fans of the original film, and even though it’s just more of the same, I ended up having some good laughs and entertainment. This won’t bring in a lot of new fans, and it may not win over old fans at the same rate that the first film did, but I think it’s a worthy addition to the zombie genre, and I would really like this see this team come back together for a third installment. Just make it sooner.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, click here.

[Early Review] Joker (2019)

Director: Todd Phillips

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver

121 mins. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.

 

Well, it’s finally here, the prequel to the Batman series that isn’t connected to any Batman films. Wait, the Joker origin story that isn’t The Killing Joke. Wait, so what is it? It’s something else, I’ll tell you. This film is really something else…

It’s really getting crazy out there, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, Her, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) sees it. He’s down on his luck, living paycheck to paycheck with his mother, and he’s constantly picked on by others. He has a goal in life, to bring joy and happiness to the world, and he sees his idol, late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull, The Wizard of Lies), as an escape. He wants to be a comedian like Murray, but all he has is negative thoughts. When Arthur is pushed into a corner, he finds a new way to put a smile on, one that will transform him into an icon all his own.

This is Joaquin Phoenix’s film. There are no costars. The other performances are practically extended cameos. Phoenix makes this version of the Joker all his own. His performance is filled with intensity (his eyes are filled with anger) and depression. Phoenix researched multiple psychological disorders in order to give an unidentifiable character, one that could not be diagnosed. The dialogue and physicality is disturbing and unnerving to no end.

This is a film that is intense, unhappy, and joyless. Director Todd Phillips (War Dogs, The Hangover Part III), who co-wrote the screenplay, infused the film with moments that made me and the rest of the audience nervously laugh, and I felt bad for laughing after. There’s a weird feeling the film gave to me, where I felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t, or perhaps watching something I felt bad watching. There’s an emotionally disturbing quality to the film but I would say that those looking for violence won’t see as much as critics have proclaimed. What violence is in the film is very powerful and more character-focused than shock-driven. It’s more emotionally and mentally violent.

The biggest flaw I would have with the film is the final scene, but I’m not sure how I would end the film other than how it ends. I would also argue that the film contains fewer surprises than I expected. It’s fairly straight-forward. It’s not a true-to-nature flaw, I would say, but the controversy and the critical reception might be overselling the shocking nature of the film. It was pretty much how I expected the story to go.

Joker is a masterful film with a career-best performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is a man in his playground, a thrillingly-disturbing character study that’s unlike any comic book adaptation I’ve ever seen. The film makes use of its unreliable narrator better than almost any other film ever has. Temper your expectations for any shocking revelations because this is a standalone film that is one of the more crazy movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. See this movie, but only if you think you can handle it.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Ad Astra (2019)

Director: James Gray

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Live Tyler, Donald Sutherland

Screenplay: James Gray, Ethan Gross

122 mins. Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language.

 

I’m assuming Brad Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, World War Z) saw his Ocean’s Eleven costars George Clooney and Matt Damon receive acclaim for making a space movie, and he got incredibly jealous. Well, be jealous no more Brad. The balls in your court now, Julia Roberts.

Ad Astra is the story of Roy McBride (Pitt), astronaut and son to the famous H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive, Just Getting Started), who disappeared on a secretive interstellar expedition some 30 years ago. Now, in the near future, Earth has been ravaged by a series of power surges believed to be caused by Cliff’s secret experiment, The Lima Project. Roy has been tasked with traveling to Mars to deliver a message to space, hopefully reaching his possibly still living father, in order to put an end to the power surges before they threaten the entire solar system.

I admire the idea of taking Heart of Darkness and moving it into the sci-fi genre. It worked so well as a war film when Francis Ford Coppola turned it into Apocalypse Now. The problem for me came out of an unimpressive shell for this film. I don’t think we got enough insight into The Lima Project or The Surge or many of the science fiction elements that would have enriched this telling of the classic story. The film kept being marketed as the closest thing to actual space travel, but then I kept getting hung up on the sound work every time there was an explosion. The film looked gorgeous, but my investment was wavering throughout.

Brad Pitt is incredible as Roy, giving a subtle but impressive performance as a man who hasn’t taken much care in his world as he sinks himself into his work, ignoring all outside relationships and distractions. The whole film is carried by Pitt as no other character is given much screen time to match him. In fact, Pitt’s performance is so internalized that he doesn’t even look like he’s acting at all. I liken his work here to another space film from last year, First Man with Ryan Gosling. Comparing this subtle work to Pitt’s other major film this year, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, just goes to show that this is an actor who really can do it all.

There’s a lot to really love about Ad Astra. I think, from a technical view, everything is seemingly executed quite well, but I just wasn’t drawn in by the story in the way I wanted to. It’s magnificently shot and the score is impactful and deep. The effects were strong, but the story just didn’t take me. Still, I would recommend you checking it out if you’re a fan of sci-fi, as this contemplative opera showcases another incredible performance from Brad Pitt.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] It: Chapter Two (2019)

Director: Andy Muschietti

Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård

Screenplay: Gary Dauberman

169 mins. Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material.

 

When you have a film like It, something that was so consumed by the pop culture at the time of release, getting a follow-up to stick the landing is a pretty tough endeavor. Thankfully, It: Chapter Two was ready for the challenge.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club encountered It, and most of them have gone on with their lives, having forgotten all about the dancing clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Assassination Nation) and the oath they made to each other, that they would return to Derry if It ever came back. Now, with children going missing and a body recovered in the small time, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa, The Clinic, TV’s Shadowhunters) places the calls to his friends, who aren’t too keen on coming back to defeat It once and for all. Now, the Losers Club, as adults, will have to perform an ancient ritual that Mike is certain will destroy It, but it will take each of them back to the worst parts of their childhood to confront their darkest fears in an effort to save the town and the children of a new generation.

I’ve stated before that, having read the book, that the stuff with the kids is more interesting than the stuff with the adults, but director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (The Nun, TV’s Swamp Thing) have found an workable way to explore these characters and all the changes that have come upon them. It: Chapter Two spends some of its lengthy three-hour runtime on the flashbacks to 1989 and revisiting the Losers Club in their collective youth, something that I think helps connect these adult actors to their younger incarnations. Through the use of digital de-aging (something that has hits and misses in the film), we are able to see the connective tissue and character arcs manifest in the Losers as they return to Derry.

The casting in the film is phenomenal. I had some deep concerns about how the casting for this second part would go, seeing that there could be a potential for the studio to pick all big names or all unknowns, and the final result is more in line with picking performers who can embody the characters through their mannerisms, dialogue, and cadence. I cannot believe how great the cast is here, but the standout is without a doubt Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins, TV’s Barry) as the adult Richie Tozier, played in the first film by Finn Wolfhard. Hader steals every scene he’s in, and even though I think he is given a bit too much comedy in the screenplay, he sells it without overdoing it. He also has the best character arc of the group due to some additions that weren’t in the book that work very well.

Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy, Filth, Glass) is the surrogate for King himself here, having aged into a writer that is constantly critiqued for his endings, and the love triangle between himself, Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Dark Phoenix), and Ben (Jay Ryan, Lou, TV’s Neighbours) plays out really well in this film. I like the way it’s done in the book, but not being able to actually get inside these characters’ thoughts, I think the translation, which makes some adjustments, is satisfyingly put to film here. Chastain’s Beverly has suffered with the men in her life going all the way back to her relationship with her abusive father, and she’s haunted by visions from her time staring into the deadlights back in 1989 have led her down a successful but lonely adulthood, and finding that poem on the postcard back in Derry opens up some wounds and confusion, she herself not certain exactly who wrote it.

James Ransone (Sinister, Captive State) is one of those actors I didn’t know as well, but he embodies Eddie so well, having grown up into a man that is essentially married to his mother but still struggling with his past fears and paranoias as a child. He is easily the most terrified of the Losers upon returning to Derry, and with good reason. I think the fears that Eddie is presented with are so relatable and that’s one of the ways Ransone connects with the audience. He also nails the speech style and physical ticks of Jack Dylan Grazer, who played young Eddie in the first film.

Bill Skarsgård is yet again at the top of his game here, but I will warn you that we don’t see a lot of Pennywise in the finished film. It’s not about him; it’s never really been about him, and It is a shapeshifter meant to take on your biggest fears, so it’s a criticism I heard at my screening that I would take issue with. It’s just a problem with Skarsgård being so good that you want him in the movie more.

It: Chapter Two is, if I’m correct, the longest studio horror film ever, clocking in at 169 minutes, but I never really felt it. I enjoy myself so much with these characters and this town that it didn’t bother me that the film is long. I wanted more time, in fact, but you should know that it isn’t three-hours of white knuckle horror. Again, my biggest flaw with the film is the same as with the first one: I wasn’t scared. I would say I had more effective scares in Chapter Two, but the film is more about the characters than about It.

Muschietti gets more experimental, spiritual, and cerebral with Chapter Two. His visual style elevates here, giving a more nightmarish and odd look at the town and its many horrors, and though some of the film feels like retread, it’s done with a different hook this time around. The haunts of the film tend to rely more on CGI, something that doesn’t look as clean here, but there are still enough shocks and surprises peppered throughout that definitely got the audience during my screening.

Fans of It, be they from the original book or even the 1990 miniseries, should find a lot to enjoy with It: Chapter Two. It’s not a perfect ending, but I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story all the way through to the ending, and it made me want to go back, rewatch the first film again (a requirement, I would say, before seeing this one), and then come right back to the theater to see the second-half again. It’s a very watchable conclusion to this story, one that will be in my regular rotation during the horror months, and it’s definitely more suited to a Kill Bill-style event viewing wherein one watches both films together. I loved the film, though I will note that there are issues with the overall execution, but I would still highly-recommend this finale to anyone who liked the first film.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Andy Muschietti’s It, click here.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (2019)

Director: Benjamin Berman

Cast: The Amazing Johnathan, Eric Andre, Benjamin Berman

Screenplay: Benjamin Berman

91 mins. Not Rated.

 

I’ve been a big fan of The Amazing Johnathan for years, ever since catching a small set of his on Comedy Central back when Comedy Central showed standup. When I heard that he had become very ill and only given a year to live, it made me incredibly sad, and I recently discovered a documentary from director Benjamin Berman (TV’s Comedy Bang! Bang!) that chronicles his time spent with The Amazing Johnathan as the performer prepared to return to the stage several years after being originally diagnosed. I almost can’t describe it any more than that.

The Amazing Johnathan was given a year to live, and he’s been alive far longer than expected, and filmmaker Benjamin Berman is here to document the artist’s current living situation, but in the process of telling Johnathan’s story, Berman discovers that he is not the only documentarian currently working on The Amazing Johnathan’s life, and as a mystery surrounding this other documentary unfolds, Berman finds the lines between reality and fantasy blurring, leading on a strange odyssey that will make him question everything.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is head-scratchingly odd. It’s a film that questions the very nature of documentary filmmaking itself as this head-trip unfolds before the audience. With multiple filmmakers each taking a stab at the story of the famed comedian, lies that he made begin to unravel and a confusingly convoluted narrative takes shape, one that asks questions about life and death and the human fascination with both.

You have to see the film for yourself, and I was equal parts hating and loving it in all its frustrating layers. What I can tell you is this: you won’t believe what’s going on, and you probably shouldn’t believe everything you see. It’s a meth-fueled journey into madness. As I said before, I really hated it. I also really loved it. I’m still not sure how I came out the other end feeling, and I recommend you see it for yourself.

 

3.5/5 (tentatively)

-Kyle A. Goethe

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein (2019)

Director: Daniel Gray Longino

Cast: David Harbour, Kate Berlant, Alex Ozerov, Mary Woronov, Alfred Molina, Heather Lawless, Marion Van Cuyck

Screenplay: John Levenstein

32 mins. Rated TV-14.

 

I came across Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein on Netflix during a random searching, and I had to watch it. I’m a sucker for mockumentaries and short form comedy, so this was an easy choice.

David Harbour III (a fictional version of David Harbour of Revolutionary Road and Hellboy) is on the search to discover the mystery behind his father, David Harbour Jr., and the play that obsessed him. That play is Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein. By recreating his father’s office and visiting with his father’s agent and the play’s producer, David deconstructs the convoluted and extremely confusing video footage of the play while attempting not to drive himself insane in the process.

The short film is made by David Harbour’s performance. He plays a fictionalized version of himself as well as playing his father, in an Orson Welles-esque role, and the film works because of him. There’s a lot of strange comedy to the film, and that comes from a bonkers screenplay from John Levenstein (Illegally Yours, TV’s Kroll Show).

It’s simple to say that I’ve watched this short twice and still couldn’t completely unravel the confusion in its many layers, from the confusion between who is playing Dr. Frankenstein and who is playing the Monster in the play, to which lines in the play are actually in the play versus which lines are monologues about acting forcibly added in to elevate his father’s pride. It’s watching the story and letting yourself by unraveled by it that makes it funny, though not something that I would call classically comical. It’s a stupid short film but it is worth watching at least once.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is not great cinema, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed it for what it was and I think the run time is perfect as it would have made a terrible feature, but I cannot begin to explain how it all fits together, and that’s kind of the point. Give it a try yourself and see what you can make of it.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019)

or “Trust me, poster. I won’t laugh.”

Director: Chris Renaud

Cast: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Haddish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper, Chris Renaud, Hannibal Burress, Bobby Moynihan

Screenplay: Brian Lynch

86 mins. Rated PG for some action and rude humor.

 

I didn’t much care for The Secret Life of Pets. In fact, I felt that the trailer for the film was better than the whole movie. The film had sold itself on the idea that our pets are doing their own crazy thing as soon as their humans left the house, but it never really was about that. The finished product was a standard “new brother” scenario but for dogs. It wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t interesting. Well, I’m here today to report that the sequel…is not much better.

Sometime after the first film, Max (Patton Oswalt, Young Adult, TV’s A.P. Bio) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet, The Loft, TV’s Modern Family) have a good thing going with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper, Bridesmaids, TV’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). That is, until she gets married and has a baby. After the initial frustrations of getting to know the child, Liam, Max sees protection as his new role in the family. The problem is that all the dangerous situations Liam gets into are giving Max some heavy anxiety. When the family goes on a road trip out of town, Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner 2049), a sheepdog who teaches Max how to deal with his new role. Also, all the other animals get into shenanigans with an illegal white tiger named Hu.

I don’t know that I’ve been more bored in a theater in 2019 than when I was watching The Secret Life of Pets 2, and don’t tell me that it’s a kids movie and my enjoyment doesn’t matter because plenty of films intended for younger audiences are good enough for adults to enjoy, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 is just a slogging bore. To be fair, I would rate it higher than the first film because it at least tries to stick to the central premise that the first film sold us on, being about pets when their owners are away. This one gets closer to that idea before being way too weighed down by all these plot threads that could not keep my interest at all.

The voice cast all does fine work, and I didn’t find it all that tough to adjust to Patton Oswalt as Max after Louis C.K. was let go. I enjoyed Harrison Ford playing a dog version of Harrison Ford. I liked their banter for what it was. This was the plotline the film should have gone with, but there’s this shift in focus when the narrative heads over the white tiger story that all-around did not work for me.

There’s just so many things about the film that feel very cringeworthy, from the way Max’s owner treats him and Duke after having a baby to the really weird way they are played as parents who seemingly have no idea what’s going on with their child and where he is at any given time. Katie is a bad parents and a bad pet owner in the film and it made me really not like any scene with her involved.

Overall, The Secret Life of Pets 2 was slightly better than the first film, but it just didn’t work for me at all. There’s a technical side of things that is well-done in the film, but everything from the plot to the characters just doesn’t land. This is one franchise that doesn’t need a third installment so that these voice actors can go on to better properties.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Cast: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rey Howery, Micah Stock

Screenplay: Paul Downs Colaizzo

103 mins. Rated R for language throughout, sexuality and some drug material.

 

While at a Q&A following my screening of Brittany Runs a Marathon, writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo said that he wanted audiences to spend the first act of the film thinking “I know that girl,” the second act thinking “I am that girl,” and the third act thinking “I want to be that girl.” In this way, Brittany Runs a Marathon is an absolute success.

Brittany (Jillian Bell, 22 Jump Street, TV’s Super Mansion) is almost thirty, and she’s having trouble sleeping. Her doctor explains that it might be her weight that is causing her sleep problems, but Brittany’s lifestyle of drinking, partying, eating, and not caring probably have something to do with it as well. She realizes that she isn’t really moving forward in life and decides to finally do something about it. She wants to run a block, and that block turns into 2 miles and then a 5k. Now, Brittany sets her sights upon something bigger: the New York City Marathon. She has less than a year, but with her new running friends Catherine (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust, Good Boys) and Seth (Micah Stock, Life Itself, TV’s Bonding), Brittany believes that she can achieve this almost impossible goal, but there’s only one problem standing in her way: herself.

Paul Downs Colaizzo’s debut film is a very tight character study loosely based on a friend, and his collaboration with Jillian Bell (who lived the character’s struggle in losing 40 pounds herself) in creating the film’s version of Brittany is terrific. Together, they crafted a wholly relatable and flawed human being who thinks she knows what will fix everything in her life. The depiction of the classic hero’s journey here is spot-on, and it’s anchored by a well-written screenplay and well-performed cast of supporting players. I particularly loved Bell’s chemistry with running friend Seth, played by relative newcomer Micah Stock.

What’s so great about the film is that each of the secondary characters has an important role in advancing Brittany’s arc and servicing the story. Brittany’s roommate Gretchen is similar to Brittany in that she seemingly has everything she wants in life but still isn’t a happy and good person. Her coworker Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect, TV’s Harvey Girls Forever!) is someone who has goals in life but doesn’t really move forward in them, very similar to how Brittany’s journey begins. She is faced with all these possible versions of herself throughout the film as she is forced to confront the person she wants to be.

Brittany Runs a Marathon isn’t splashy or visually stunning. It’s a character piece, and a very inspiring story that made me want to run out and sign up for a 5k (baby steps). It’s headlined by a star-making performance from Jillian Bell and an all-around well-picked supporting cast. Colaizzo’s strongest asset is his excellent character work and story structure, and it’s on full-display here. Outside of a few nitpicks throughout, Brittany Runs a Marathon comes highly recommended.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Director: André Øvredal

Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Screenplay: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro

111 mins. Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.

 

I remember reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I had all three books, and I vividly recall the striking imagery. It was one of those first experiences that attributed to my love of horror, alongside watching Halloween with my mother when I was four and the Goosebumps book series from R.L. Stine. It was a pivotal part in shaping my fascination with fear and the macabre as ways of telling real stories, and they were damn entertaining too. Now, producer Guillermo del Toro, coming off his Oscar wins for The Shape of Water, is bringing us the film adaptation of this classic book trilogy with director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) behind the camera.

The story begins on Halloween night 1968, with Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie, Skin) and her friends, Auggie (Gabriel Rush, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Chuck, who discover an old book in the supposed haunted home of the Bellows family. This book contains several scary stories and a lot of empty pages too. Stella takes the book home and discovers that new stories are appearing in it. At the same time, each of the kids that stepped foot in the Bellows home is in a story being written, one that comes true. Now, Stella and her friends are running out of time to get the book back home and break the curse of Sarah Bellows and her book of scary stories before they become a part of it.

As with many anthology films, which Scary Stories loosely is, the individual stories are one piece, and the framing device another. Of the many scary stories featured in the film, I think they all work quite well. The creature design is pretty awesome, some visual treats I haven’t seen before, and I think they, for the most part, work really well.

The main problem with the movie is the framing device. The whole story of Sarah Bellows and the book of scary stories should work on the surface, and it adds a nice layer of tone and flavor to the 1960s setting. The problem is that the framing device isn’t as strongly written as the stories that appear within the film, and this main plot of Stella and her friends is given far too much of the runtime of the film. It easily could have been cut about 20 minutes to streamline the plot more.

I also didn’t connect with Stella very much. She is a little flatly-written, and I was far more interested in the secondary characters like Auggie and Chuck as well as archetypal bully Tommy (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns, Brad’s Status).

For the problems with the screenplay, Øvredal does a great job with direction, setting tone and mood down to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of reading the stories as a kid. The film reminded me of reading Goosebumps or watching the television series for Are You Afraid of the Dark? He crafted a creepy atmosphere oozing with unsettling imagery. Much like The House with a Clock in its Walls from last year, this is a kid’s horror film that doesn’t shy away from some truly haunting imagery. Whereas The House with a Clock is closer to a Hocus Pocus, Scary Stories almost aims for It or The Monster Squad, definitely something more adult than I expected. I would caution potential viewers by saying the film has some disturbing elements, but all the same, this is exactly the kind of movie experience that adolescent Kyle would have been all over.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a winning horror experience. While the film struggles in building new mythology and setting the framing device into play, it mostly wins with the actual scary stories. It was a hellishly fun viewing experience that perfectly sets up more stories to come. Hopefully the filmmakers can course-correct some of the problems of the film for a sequel should one arise. I still had a lot of fun and would urge filmgoers looking for a nostalgic horror throwback to check this one out.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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