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

[#2015oscardeathrace] Selma (2014)

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Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussaint, Stephen James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey

Screenplay: Paul Webb

128 mins. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [Awards Not Yet Announced]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song (“Glory” by Common, John Legend) [Awards Not Yet Announced]

 

Selma is the story of a key moment in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo, Interstellar, A Most Violent Year): the fight for the right to vote. King has tries to get help from President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins, The Grand Budapest Hotel), but to no avail. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, TV’s Zero Hour, The Purge: Anarchy), would hope to keep him out of harm’s way. But in Selma, Alabama, a woman named Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple, The Butler) can’t even get registered to vote. King takes his civil rights movement to Selma in hopes of swaying Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, TV’s Lie to Me, Pulp Fiction) to let them vote.

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While the film Selma isn’t perfect, it does contain some of the more perfect casting and performance work of the past year. David Oyelowo is the spitting visage of the late Dr. King. He has the look, he has the voice, and he has the mannerisms down to a science. Tom Wilkinson plays the former President filled with self-doubt and delusion. Rapper Common (TV’s Hell on Wheels, Smokin’ Aces) gives one of his best roles as James Bevel, as does Wendell Pierce (TV’s The Wire, Parker) in the position of Reverand Hosea Williams. We also get some great turns from some major Hollywood players, like Martin Sheen and Dylan Baker (Spider-Man 2, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), in small roles to elevate the craft of the other actors to something truly great.

Director Ava DuVernay’s camera is more stoic than static, offering what feels more like a live docu-drama than a sweeping picture, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did mess with the flow slightly.

I really enjoyed the song “Glory” from Common and John Legend that plays over the closing credits. It displays a plethora of African-American cultural music from the time of Dr. King to present day.

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Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a film that must be watched, if only for the powerful messages it conveys. I honestly did not know as much about this facet of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the events in Selma, Alabama, and so I found the film engaging and shocking at times, and definitely worth your time.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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