Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

AUGUST 9, 2019


I suppose I should note that my experience with Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark consists of reading at least one, I think two of the volumes in 3rd or 4th grade courtesy of my school library. I'm sure I had my favorites, ones I'd re-read before returning the book(s), and probably talked about them with a friend or two, but that's about it. That was damn near 30 years ago; my memories have faded to the point of being completely useless - I might as well just say that I am aware that the books exist and that they had some creepy-ass art. Last month at trivia there was a round on the original stories and we got a zero, and it wasn't a case of "Oh man, I'd know it if I heard it!" kind of answers - the questions might as well have been in another language.

Luckily, this means I won't be sad that my favorite story or stories weren't represented in the feature film version, or that they changed something about them, or any of the other complaints people tend to make whenever a childhood fave is adapted for the screen. That said, I do know for certain that the context is changed, because instead of making a traditional anthology film that you'd expect given the source material of unrelated short stories, director André Øvredal and his writers (which include producer Guillermo del Toro) weaved a few of them into a larger narrative, not unlike the Goosebumps movie. To me, this was the right call - if they just picked 3-5 of the stories and did straight adaptations, it'd probably be a bit of a bore, not to mention an instant turn-off for fans who may have had a different wishlist of what stories should be done.

Instead, we get a pretty traditional narrative about a group of friends accidentally unleashing evil and trying to figure out how to stop it, allowing a few of the books' iconic monsters to show up in a single story. This means we get invested in the heroes and that the film has a driving force from start to finish, as opposed to the stop/go/stop again that can plague an anthology film's overall strength. Take Creepshow or its first sequel for example - if you don't like a particular story (in my case, I have next to no love for Something To Tide You Over in the original and Chief Woodenhead in Creepshow 2), that's a section of the film that you don't like, and probably want to skip over on Blu-ray. You can't really do that here; even if you don't care for, say, "Big Toe", if you skip over that chunk of the movie, you won't know what happens to one of its primary characters.

And yes, things do happen to our group of heroes - this may be aimed at the younger horror crowd, but that doesn't mean it's been sanitized of any real danger. It's almost structured like a Final Destination movie, in fact - our main character, Stella, is the one who first opened/read the book and keeps it with her at all times, and when she notices a new story being written right before her eyes (in blood), she will race to that person's aid and try to warn them of the danger that they're in. Unfortunately she's usually too late or they simply don't listen to her, and then after some "we have to figure out how to stop it!" kind of stuff the process will begin again, as a new story appears and she once again runs off to try to stop it - same as any FD movie functions once the one who had the vision realizes what's going on and arrives at the person's house (or office, or gym, or whatever) just in time to watch one of the classic Rube Goldbergian setpieces unfold.

The deaths here aren't that elaborate though; if anything Øvredal minimizes the actual violence in favor of the buildup, which worked pretty well for this non-reader as I didn't know what form the evil was about to take. For example at one point a character notices that the next story (at that point, the title is all that appears) is "Me-Tie-Dough-Ty-Walker", so if you read the story you'd know what was coming, more or less. I didn't have a clue, so I got to be just as surprised as the character (Gil Bellows, in this case) when a head came rolling out of a chimney and started talking. I didn't personally find the movie all that scary, but the genuine stakes and continued surprises (read: new monsters who were taking their turn as the focus for a few minutes) kept it more or less engaging anyway.

I say more or less because despite this correct approach, it still kinda ran out of steam for me around the halfway point, when a character makes a rather silly decision for seemingly no other reason than to give the filmmakers the opportunity to add another monster to the mix. Stopping the evil isn't a time-consuming process, and Stella seems smart enough to figure out what she has to do (or at least, where to go), so the movie could have been over quicker if she just went and did that instead of choosing to stay in a holding cell with her friend Ramón, who is suspected of wrongdoing by Bellows' sheriff character. They also don't spend a lot of time on Sarah, the ghostly girl who is seemingly behind all of the terror, making her a rather unexciting archvillain - more of her and her story could have helped the climax feel like a real showstopper, but instead it just feels like another obstacle.

Another odd thing about the movie is that there's more interesting things going on in the margins than in the actual narrative. For starters, it's set just before the 1968 election, and since I've recently learned that people don't bother to know their history when sitting down to watch a period piece, this means that young folks are going off to fight in the Vietnam War, and the US populace was about to vote for the man who'd become the 2nd shadiest President of all time. In other words: bummer times, and our characters are living through their last carefree years before they're old enough to be drafted (in fact one of them already IS old enough, as we learn later). The film opens on Halloween, and the kids are dressing up to go out, despite knowing they're getting too old to be putting on costumes - it's in service of a revenge prank on the local asshole, but I still got the impression they were trying to hold on to the youth the country seemed determine to end for them by shipping them off to war the second they were eligible.

Also, Ramón is the victim of racism, both at the hands of the aforementioned asshole (who calls him a wetback) as well as a comparatively subtle form from the sheriff, who immediately zeroes in on him as an "outsider" of sorts and laughs when his car is destroyed (for an extra bit of evidence that the sheriff's an asshole, we later learn he's also a Nixon voter!). Normally when we're talking about racially charged elements of the 1960s, it's specifically black characters being targeted, so it's interesting to see it from a Latino's perspective for a change, and used just enough for it to be notable without being distracting. Also "for a change", Night of the Living Dead shows up courtesy of a drive-in double feature (with fellow public domain staple The Terror, though we never see any of that one), but it's not just because it's free for the filmmakers to use - it takes place a few weeks after the movie originally came out! It's the exact right movie to use, for possibly the first time ever.

Ultimately, it's a pretty good movie that comes almost frustratingly close to being just straight up good. They had all of the right pieces in play, but there would always be one "off" decision keeping a setpiece from being as exciting/scary as it should have been (for example, the spiders that come out of the girl's cheek should have had me squirming, but alas the digital bugs are by far the worst CGI in the film), and if you ask me its first half wasn't as strong as its second, which added to my somewhat muted overall impression. One of Stella's friends is also kind of a lousy actor (or at least, giving a lousy performance), which also diminished some of its strength, since it's right around where he makes his exit that the film also starts to lose steam narratively. But on the other hand, the Halloween atmosphere (at least in the first 20 minutes) and small town setting (Pennsylvania to be specific, though naturally it was shot in Canada) make it a fine way to start prepping for the upcoming season, and it'll be a great midway film for nine or ten year olds who have gotten too old for House With A Clock In Its Walls but aren't ready for Freddy or Jason just yet.

What say you?


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