Decent ‘Scary Stories’ can’t capture books’ magic

There’s several immediately recognizable elements from Stephen Gammell’s iconic drawings in here, even if they don’t capture the nightmarish quality of the medium. Images courtesy Lionsgate. 

7/10 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a film caught between its iconic source material and a risk-averse production that leans heavily on the exhausting, bland choices common in the past decade’s horror. Still, there are significant highlights that separate Scary Stories from the mostly awful movies it resembles.

Halloween night 1968, Mill Valley, Pennsylvania- horror enthusiast Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colleti) and some friends snoop around a haunted house famous in the area. Legend has it the family who lived there, the Bellows, had a secret daughter, Sarah, left out of all family portraits and confined to a prison-like room in the center of the house, who would tell stories to passers-by – stories that came alive and killed the people who heard their ending. Nicholls and company find Sarah Bellows’ secret chamber and discover her book of scary stories. Upon taking it out of the house, the haunted book begins to autonomously write new stories for them.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark looks and feels nearly identical other recent horror dumps like Ouija, Truth or Dare and The Bye Bye Man, low-tier horror movies that crimp a somehow even cheaper version of the Insidious/Conjuring aesthetic and obsess with their particular gimmicks in an attempt to manufacture audience interest. Scary Stories is miles better than most of those movies, to be fair, but a lot of it feels like a corporate-commissioned imitation of them.  

There’s one specific moment, when the hyper-competent female lead played by an actress you’ve never heard of desperately calls out for gimmick-specific information that really isn’t useful, that ties this comparison together, but it’s in everything from the mid-20th century setting to the lighting and color grading and sound design. There’s the sudden walkie-talkie appearance to pander to Stranger Things fans. The movie begins with a Lana Del Rey cover of “Season of the Witch” and ends with a scene of vague sequel bait, both of which feel like tacky studio additions to help with advertising and drive gossip about a potential series moving forward.

The film gets into more Lovecraftian stories as it moves along, material that gets more under your skin, so to speak. 

This isn’t just another August horror dump, though. This is the real McCoy, a Guillermo del Toro-produced adaptation of an iconic book series which has been American children’s introduction to horror since the 1980s, the bespoke, omnipresent purveyor of safe-for-work chills that “Goosebumps” only dreamed of being. But Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t capture what makes the books so special to so many.

Perhaps that would have been impossible – the books are a universal introductory horror experience, and you can’t introduce something twice – but there were better ways to do it than this, and they were discussed in development. Del Toro took a defeatist approach to the idea of producing Scary Stories as an anthology early in development, which eventually lead to much of the movie being an original invention from writing duo Dan and Kevin Hageman with certain famous set pieces from the book series spliced in. 

So instead of the anthology movie this should have been that would be a tour of various aesthetics that fit various stories, we’ve got what’s mostly a completely original film here. That’s not a bad thing, and Scary Stories isn’t a bad movie. The cast is mostly great, there’s significant depth to the narrative and some of the scares are quite engrossing. The “red spot,” “dream” and climactic “haunted house” sequences in particular, all scenes in which  the mostly nondescript frame suddenly fills with color and first-person shots bind the audience into the experience, are the gripping sequences of visual tension that keep this film watchable.

The theme del Toro, the Hageman brothers and director André Øvredal settled on was the power of stories, which expresses itself in a strange way that’s growing on me over time. Sarah Bellows is enslaved by the stories that are told about her, and that’s juxtaposed with her own stories that magically kill people. The extended metaphor feels mixed, then heavy-handed as it comes together over the course of the movie.

Another progression is from a bland black and white color palette to some alarming reds, with monsters that normally hide in shadow bathed in the color. This sort of evolving visual is what stops Scary Stories from truly fading into its forgettable contemporaries.

It’s an interesting dynamic, but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark screams for an anthology structure, the type of structure steered away from early in development, which could do a much deeper, more abstract exploration of this same theme by its very nature. While a pure anthology with unrelated skits credited to several different directors may not have been right for Scary Stories, incorporating a branching story that may connect together, or may not – think Pulp Fiction or Sin City – may have been a more interesting way to go. Seven Psychopaths, one of the best expressions of the “power of stories” theme, is about a storyteller and incorporates several shorts within the narrative as metaphors and competing alternate endings. That’s another much more compelling structure Scary Stories could have gone for.

Without much of a hook to differentiate it as a film beyond its heritage, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will have to settle for being the best execution of some very poor stylistic choices, eventually fading into obscurity as trends change and its immortal source material makes a much deeper impression on generations to come. That’s not the worst fate for a movie to suffer.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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