Why do we watch movies or read books? Stories are often a form of entertainment, capable of inspiring, enlightening us, , instilling joy, or… terror. There’s little you can’t do with an open mind and a blank sheet of paper (or a laptop and a coffee shop that will let you bum their Wi-Fi). Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is first and foremost a horror film, but one with a core belief in the power of storytelling, and a terrifying tale to teach and horrify audiences to degrees of success.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Release: August 9, 2019
Directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunter), the first name audiences are likely to latch onto is none other than Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro, the prolific and beloved filmmaker whose films toe the line between fairytale and ghoulish nightmare. If Øvredal directs, then certainly del Toro acts as the voice on the shoulder, eschewing our characters in one way or another like an omniscient teller of tales.
Our tale takes us to the small Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley in 1968, reminding us that the United States has in fact had times of internal turmoil other than today. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a shy high schooler living with her single father (Dean Norris), guilt-wracked by her mother who walked out on the family years ago. Taken with writing and all thing spooky, she and friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are a tight trio, out on Halloween when they bump into Ramón (Michael Garza), a drifter who aides in their escape from a local bully. It is Halloween after all. Everyone knows it’s the holiday bullies thrive off of!
Unfortunately they escape right into the dilapidated mansion of local horror myth Sarah Bellows, an urban legend and slice of local history whose titular scary stories had a way of enticing local children… before they went missing forever. Stumbling upon her old book of tales, Stella and friends soon find that the final chapter’s not yet written, and terror permeates their town as the stories unfold.
From the get-go, Scary Stories feels incredibly familiar. Stella quotes Night of the Living Dead to Ramón, who shares her fondness for horror and encourages her aspirations to write and tell stories of her own. There’s a foundation of love for storytelling palpable in Øvredal’s film that might feel oddly warm against the backdrop of bone-chilling horror. And in keeping with del Toro’s nuance and respectful approach to the classic ghost story, Scary Stories, by time we get rolling, starts to weave a yarn of fear and self-realization, but more than just that, one of sadness and loneliness. What is a ghost but a moment of pain?
But hold your horses and don’t get too gushy: We’ve got some fears to face. The marketing around the film has probably made it crystal clear at this point that Scary Stories features its fair share of grotesque and haunting entities set to go bump in the night, and here fans will find a similar macabre charm del Toro has built his career on. Pulling from the Stephen Gammell illustrations of the original Scary Stories books by author Alvin Schwartz, on which the film is based, our monsters are unique and terrifying, brought to life by some terrific effects both practical and digital. “The Jangly Man” in particular struck me as inventive and menacing, while not always relying on simple jump-scares.
Scary Stories manages several jump-scares indeed, not the least of which come in the form of screeching fingernails and shambling corpses, but to Øvredal’s credit there’s a restraint in his use of loud noises and quick-cuts. While we’re on sound, the film has a terrific, thumping soundscape, as all good horror does. The thud of books pulled from shelves have as much menace and weight as the wail of a specter. But some of the menace comes from long, creepy glances or the sense of inevitability in a book writing out stories on its own accord, and the script, co-written by Dan and Kevin Hageman with del Toro, looks to find the real-world parallels that keep us up at night.
Set squarely in the late-’60s, the Vietnam War is pulling young man from their worlds by the fistful, against the backdrop of Nixon’s rise to the presidency. And we all know how that turned out. Though limited to a bit of superficial news casts and TV-images, the political landscape of the era begins to rear its head in significant ways later in the story, though I wish there were a little more to the world we’re given. Though maybe that’s the history buff in me looking for history in a horror movie. At the very least, the wardrobe, sets, and vehicles all feel appropriately-period without shoving it down your throat.
If there’s a lasting impression to be made by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it’s that its own philosophy rings true. For a film so deeply rooted in its genre, lovingly crafted from source material that many a fan might be skeptical of seeing adapted, the film cries a mantra of the importance of stories. How they’re told by our politicians to sway our votes, or how they perpetuate our society as gossip or racism. The brutal segregation that was boiling in the ’60s in the US doesn’t come up in Scary Stories, though more than once Ramón faces casual ridicule for his hispanic heritage. What could make someone wary or hateful towards another person they’ve never even met, because of the color of their skin? A story, perhaps.
Scary Stories strikes me the way the recent adaptations of It or the phenomenon that is Stranger Things do; “adventure-horror.” That is, the scares and feeling of terror are sort of the glossy finish, but at its core this is a story of friends--kids--growing up together and trying to make sense of their world. It’s an adventure with its ups and downs, scares and sobs, and while it’s all incredibly familiar it serves as a reminder, and a bit of positive reinforcement for a real world where we face hardship in a multitude of ways. And hey, life might be crazy and wild, but at least we don’t have to run away from killer scarecrows.