Written by Dan and Kevin Hagemen (with some help from Guillermo del Toro)
Directed by André Øvredal
Starring Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza and Gabriel Rush
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.
Running time: 1 hour and 51 minutes
by Allison Yakulis
I’d like to suggest that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) is a family friendly(-ish) horror film. I’m not talking about your spooky/macabre comedies like The Addams Family (of which there is an impending reboot set to drop in October) or Hocus Pocus (1993) or anything you’d indiscriminately show the kiddos - Scary Stories is certainly unsettling enough to have earned its PG-13 rating. But if you have a few tweens running around that seem to have a budding interest in horror, it’ll likely make the perfect gateway drug, much like its source material has been doing for almost 40 years.
Yes, I read the books when I was a kid, sometimes covering the supremely upsetting illustrations of Stephen Gammell with my hand to help me get through the rest of the page. The first book was published in 1981 and the trilogy completed by 1991 (although I probably found them in the late 90’s). They were re-released in 2011 on the 30th anniversary of the series with more “kid-friendly” illustrations courtesy of Brett Helquist (also the illustrator of A Series of Unfortunate Events), but due to fan outrage over the comparatively tame nature of the new images this version was taken out of print and replaced with Gammell’s classic pant-dampening art as of 2017 (thank goodness).
Why does any of that matter for a film review? Firstly, it speaks to the age range and preferences of the fanbase who are likely to be most interested in this movie (maybe mature 10 year-olds to late 40’s). Secondly, and more germanely, Gammell’s art style has been emulated in the character designs of the film with several of the more disquieting pictures informing the lion’s share of spookums encountered. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things about the adaptation. As for many fans, Gammell’s work is an integral part of the allure of Scary Stories, and I’m sure that’s the point.
As for how the written content of the books have been translated to the screen, Scary Stories utilizes the same strategy as 2015’s Goosebumps adaptation did, namely by manufacturing an original overarching narrative to frame shorter stories/characters/name-drops to give the whole thing a cohesive story structure. It’s an effective tactic to keep the whole shebang chugging along rather than delivering a series of shorts with no connective tissue. As to how it all shook out, I’m of two minds.
On the one hand, Scary Stories manages to reference a lot of pretty scary real stuff in the narrative. It’s set pretty darn firmly in October/November 1968 in an imaginary small town in Pennsylvania and, lest you forget it, we intermittently check in with the Nixon presidential election on TV in the background and talk about the ongoing Vietnam war and the draft. One of our main characters, Ramón (Michael Garza) faces some pretty shocking racism a few times in the film - maybe 15 minutes into the movie the town bully paints the phrase “wetback” on his car, and he’s frequently distrusted as an outsider due, in large part, to his race. Midway through the film, our heroes visit “New Pennhurst Hospital” in search of vital information, but this obviously is referencing Pennhurst State School and Hospital, one of several real asylums in the United States accused of mistreating its patients and shuttered permanently by the latter part of the 20th century. These issues (and a few other, more spoilery ones I’m not going to mention) serve not only as plot points and character motivations, but also as a reminder that the real world is full of actual injustice, death, and danger.
Yet, these notions aren’t given the attention that they’re due in the film, and that’s where I’m a little less jazzed. It feels cheap to name-drop so many serious historical (and in some cases, ongoing) wrongs, trusting that your audience is going to “get it” or explain the social and political nuances to younger viewers for the purpose of adding unearned gravity to your plot. It’s tacky, like using “Nazi” as shorthand for facist or evil - do it too many times, and it’ll lose the weight it rightfully should have. Picking one or two issues and really going for it would’ve been a more satisfying route, and likely would’ve made the movie more emotionally impactful as well. Instead, some of the scenes fall flat, like when Ramón talks to Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) about being afraid to go to war, or feel played for shock value, like when characters listen to a recording of a patient undergoing electroshock therapy.
The cast overall does well, with Colletti as Stella and Dean Norris (of Breaking Bad and Under The Dome, among others) as her father, really stealing the show, especially during a tearful telephone conversation. Stella’s two immature friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) also have some real chemistry with one another as they affectionately bicker amongst themselves. Rounding out our main cast is Tommy (Austin Abrams), cool jock jerk who is delightfully despicable and Ruth (Natalie Gazhorn), Chuck’s vain older sister who, despite her faults and her sibling rivalry with Chuck, comes off surprisingly sympathetic despite her frequent histrionic whining. Yes, some of the characters are reduced to sketchy archetypes because they have to serve as monster fodder, but I felt that the cast did a good job of making them at least somewhat emotionally engaging whether you loved them or hated them.
I believe André Øvredal directed the film quite well, as he excels at building dread. Horror fans might be familiar with his first English language horror film, the incredibly scary The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) (Scary Stories is his second). Several of the horror sequences in Scary Stories start with the pursuit of a character by some shambling supernatural horror, and Øvredal has a deft hand when it comes to building the tension necessary to make these scenes land. He shows off the (again, really excellent) scary monsters in their most favorable light, giving you good views when it is most effective to do so, and keeping them obscured for that “where is it? where did it go?!” nervous terror. There aren’t crazy camera pans or clever editing tricks but, rather, a good sense of timing that keeps his audience on edge. When wind rustling a cornfield can make your stomach drop, that’s when you’re doing something right.
Overall, I didn’t find myself sufficiently unnerved by Scary Stories, and I think that’s something that’s going to hurt it with the young adult audience. It’s well-crafted enough to be creepy, yes. It draws upon source material that is scary for young readers but not realistic or gory enough to get the same rise out of adults. I went in expecting to get the same kind of chills I got reading the books, but didn’t take into account that I hadn’t read them in 20 years. But I think that’s the point - my age puts me in the old guard of Scary Stories fans, not the new crop. I think it’s supposed to be a bridge between people my age and their kids, something we can enjoy together as long as the kids are old enough for the subject matter and the manner in which it is executed (seriously, if your kid still gets nightmares easily, this is not going to be a fun time for the whole family - you know your child better than anyone else, so you’ll have to make the call). You’re going to lose some people in the gap, but I think this movie is poised to become a milestone for new horror fans, much like the books have been for the past several decades. Serious horror fans should probably skip this one, at least until you’ve found a skittish friend or a young acolyte who’s willing to become indoctrinated. But for the rest of you, I double dog dare you to watch.