August 9, 2019 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Movie Review)
In theaters everywhere August 9th, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has been one of the most anticipated Horror releases of 2019. Gen X kids will certainly remember the cult classic book series by Alvin Schwartz and especially the iconic artwork of Stephen Gammell, which continues to inspire fear decades on. The film spent a few years in development hell but finally attached accomplished Norwegian Director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter 2010, The Autopsy of Jane Doe 2016) to helm the project and beloved horror master Guilermo Del Toro as one of the producer. Additionally, it features a talented cast that includes Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur, and Natalie Ganzhorn. So what do we end up with? Read on to find out…
For those not familiar with the books, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are not narrative tales, rather isolated very short stories that were marketed at kids to young teens. As such, what we get in the film is an entirely original narrative that weaves some of the monsters and tales within it. It is a clever way to manage the project, as one story by itself does not have enough meat to make a film, but keeping some of the more memorable parts keeps it together amid a somewhat disappointing screenplay.
The main plot takes place in 1968 on Halloween night, where a bunch of kids find themselves on the wrong end of the town bully after exacting some amusing revenge on him. Hiding away in an old, abandoned mansion, they stumble upon an old book written by a witch of local legend. This witch happened to be a writer, and through her stories she manifests all manner of terrors upon those who have crossed her. So though she is long dead, her spirit very much remains. When the kids take the book from the mansion, new stories written in blood appear before their eyes. Whatever happens in the story happens in real time, and the unfortunate trespassers are the doomed protagonists.
As you may have guessed, this starts a chain of events with the kids and bully getting picked off one at a time with these new stories. The stories that appear are from the actual book series and so are the monsters thereof. Fans of the books will recognize them all, and although some liberties are taken, they are scary for the most part and the best thing about the film. Some of the narrative choices are a bit odd: like a teenage boy, the biggest of the bunch, hiding under his bed the same way a 5-year-old child might in another movie, or one of characters knowing full well a story is being written about him going off on his own to the exact place he knows he’ll die.
That is essentially what the film adaption of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is – a slightly better than mediocre, by-the-numbers horror held together by the sporadic appearances of the source monsters. The main actors are all unknown teens and do a good enough job, but they are working with little. The main protagonist, also a writer like the witch, and the outsider rebel are the only two memorable ones. The supporting cast barely gets any time at all.
The creature designs are all great and could not be more authentic, making it appear as though Gammell’s creations have leapt straight from the page to the screen. The Pale Lady, Harold (Mark Steger: The Pact 2012, Stranger Things series), and a few others appear in their dark, terrifying forms with the same blend of translucent grays and blacks as we remember them. They are not only rendered well but the entire ambiance of the movie darkens whenever they appear, making their scenes stand out nicely and bring some authentic scares amid the rest.
Potential viewers need to remember that these were books for kids and the movie is very similarly targeted at young teens. Thus, this is not mature horror, nor does it cater to the generation of now 30-somethings that grew up on them. Aside from the monsters themselves, some might be disappointed at the tone going in, but they can safely bring their kids or nieces and nephews to this essentially bloodless yet scary enough PG-13 rated teen horror experience. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark 3 out of 5 stars.