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.
-Kyle A. Goethe