Two brilliant directors combine to create a largely unremarkable teen horror movie.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark suffers from an embarrassment of riches. It is directed by a rising light in the horror genre, André Øvredal. It is produced and written by supernatural film maestro Guillermo del Toro. The film features a strong young cast and fantastic visuals. Scary Stories ultimately suffers from sharing a genre stuffed with recent, iconic projects like IT and Stranger Things.
There’s a lot that is interesting and entertaining in Scary Stories, but it winds up being a quaint love letter to an audience that has moved on to a hotter new fling.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
In a small Pennsylvania town, Stella and her friends spend Halloween night exploring a reportedly haunted mansion. Tales tell of Sarah Bellows, an afflicted young woman confined to a basement prison by her wealthy family. From her prison, she would tell curious children scary stories, ones that frequently ended with tragedy for the listener.
When Stella finds Sarah’s old book of stories, she discovers that new stories are being added. Inked in blood, they foretell similar sinister events for her and her friends.
Despite the pedigree of the creative team, I was worried that Scary Stories would feel chintzy. It’s not a cheap movie: the film cost 28 million to make. But compared to competitors like Goosebumps and IT, it’s pretty frugal. It also sports a largely unknown cast, who have to inject some character into what amounts to fairly generic roles.
My worries ended up unfounded. The art direction is solid. The monster effects are varied and pretty good. You get a nice mix of costume work, make-up and computer enhancement, and full CG creatures. The young cast is decent – no revelation like the young cast for IT but certainly not a liability. Øvredal has a great eye for telling details, which bring the sets and set pieces to life.
A Singular Style.
Øvredal wanted to have the setting feel extremely realistic and natural, a living simulacra of the late 1970’s in small town America. The costuming can be a bit generic, but the film deftly weaves in music, pop culture, and era-specific politics (extremely apropos, as it features rampant xenophobia, war weariness, and a dirty rotten crook in the White House, courtesy of Richard Nixon.)
Against this, you have the haunted house/dream creatures aspect that feels more attached to the magical realism of del Toro’s work. Each story features unique aspects, from lighting to color sampling to ambient sound, that makes them recognizable.
Overall, the two are wed together in a way that mostly works. It never feels like an overblown horror anthology with thin connective tissue, or a horror story that simply sprinkles in recognizable elements from the source material.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is effectively made. I just don’t know it winds up being an effective product. We’re kind of living in peak nostalgia-driven, child-protagonist horror films. IT Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Stranger Things. Even the Goosebumps series of movies have been surprisingly well received. Besides choosing the 70’s instead of the 80’s, Scary Stories doesn’t put a lot of daylight between it and its contemporaries.
Each of the above films had an angle. Stranger Things really dug deeply into nostalgia and pop culture. IT had phenomenal casting and sharp teeth when it came to its R rating. Goosebumps went for schmaltzy charm, wonder, and humor. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t quite have a solid hook.
The monsters are good, but not IT Chapter 1 levels of “never forget that face” creature feature. At PG-13, Scary Stories is too tame for Stephen King fans and too bold for Goosebumps fans. There’s little humor, and the characters aren’t memorable. Even when re-creating the iconic imagery of Alvin Schwartz’ childhood ruining book, it feels tame. The tragic ghost/haunted mansion angle feels like a left-over script from the heyday of that genre.
A Love Letter that Arrives Too Late.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t bad. It just never separates itself from the pack. About the only part of the film that feels like a beating heart is the cultural callback to the Vietnam/Watergate/Counter Culture of the 1970’s. The film doesn’t really do much with it. It feels like an odd choice, to choose such a fraught and analogous period of time and NOT use it for any deeper resonance.
A recurring theme of the film is that stories being retold can make them real. Scary Stories really needed to find a stronger story in which to embed the spooky visuals of the children’s books if it wanted these tales to come to life.