Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) Movie Review

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a 2019 horror film directed by André Øvredal, based on the children’s book series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz. The screenplay was adapted by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, from a screen story by producer Guillermo del Toro, as well as Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. The film, an international co-production of the United States and Canada, stars Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, and Lorraine Toussaint.

In 2013, CBS Films acquired the rights to the book series from 1212 Entertainment with the intent of producing it as a feature film. By January 2016 it was announced that del Toro would develop and potentially direct the project for CBS Films. Øvredal was later to set to direct the film, with del Toro, Daniel, Brown, and Grave being among the producers. Principal photography commenced on August 27, 2018, and ended on November 1, 2018, in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was theatrically released on August 9, 2019, by Lionsgate. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with many praising the horror elements, though some criticized the screenplay.

Plot

In 1968, three teenage friends in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania — Stella, an amateur author obsessed with the horror genre, Auggie, and Chuck — play a prank on bully Tommy Milner on Halloween night. When Tommy and his gang chase them in retaliation, the trio flees to a drive-in movie theater showing Night of the Living Dead, where a drifter named Ramón hides them in his car. Later, they invite Ramón to explore a local “haunted house” which once belonged to the wealthy Bellows family, who helped found Mill Valley. Inside, they find a secret room and a book of horror stories written by Sarah Bellows. Having followed the group, Tommy locks them inside the room along with Ruth, Chuck’s sister and Tommy’s sometime girlfriend. They escape after being released by an unseen presence, and discover that Tommy had wrecked Ramón’s vehicle. Stella offers asylum, and she takes Sarah’s book home with her.

After housing Ramón, Stella reads the book of scary stories and discovers that a new story, entitled “Harold,” has been freshly written in Sarah’s book; the main character is “Tommy”. In reality, an inebriated Tommy is stalked by a sentient Scarecrow – Harold. Tommy attempts to fight it, but the Scarecrow stabs him with a pitchfork, causing Tommy to call for his mother. However, he begins to produce and vomit hay from his body, incapacitating him while he violently begins to transform. The following day, Tommy is reported missing. Unsettled, Stella and Ramón investigate and find a scarecrow wearing Tommy’s clothes. Though Stella is convinced that Tommy has been turned into a scarecrow, the others are skeptical, and Ramón is hesitant to go to the police as he fears they will suspect him due to his race and his previous altercation with Tommy.

That night, Stella and Ramón witness a new story, “The Big Toe,” being written in the book, with Auggie as the main character. The pair attempt to warn him about the monster in the narrative: a zombie searching for its missing toe, which is inside a stew that Auggie unwittingly eats. Auggie is attacked by the zombie and disappears after it drags him under his bed. Realizing they are next in line, Stella, Ramón, and Chuck attempt to destroy the book; when this proves impossible, they decide to research Sarah Bellows’ life in hopes of finding a solution. Meanwhile, a spider bite on Ruth’s cheek begins to swell as a new story, “The Red Spot,” is written about her. When Ruth squeezes the affected area, the spot explodes and releases hundreds of tiny spiders. Ruth is saved by Stella, Ramón and Chuck, but is traumatized by her experience and placed in a mental institution.

The group’s investigations take them to a local hospital, where they discover that Sarah’s brother Ephraim performed electroshock therapy on her as a part of a cover-up operation. As the family’s mill had been poisoning the town’s water with mercury, killing several children, Sarah was seemingly used as a scapegoat for the deaths. At the hospital, Chuck is pursued by the Pale Lady, a phantom from his recurring nightmares. The Pale Lady eventually traps Chuck in a hallway and absorbs him. Stella and Ramón find Chuck’s signature pen before they are arrested by Police Chief Turner for trespassing, who reveals that Ramón is a Vietnam War draft dodger. While Ramón and Stella are imprisoned, Turner reads Stella’s book and discovers a new story, “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker”. While Stella and Ramón attempt to warn him of the oncoming danger, Turner’s dog begins to act strangely and Ramón realizes that he is next, and that the next creature will be the “Jangly Man”, a monster from a campfire story that frightened him as a child.

The Jangly Man, able to reconstruct itself from separate body parts, kills Turner before attempting to kill Ramón. Ramón and Stella escape their cells, and he lures the creature away while Stella goes to the Bellows house to try to reason with Sarah. Stella is taken back in time, leaving the book in the present, and lives out part of Sarah’s experience as Ephraim terrorizes her. Ephraim drags Stella into a dark room, where she encounters Sarah’s ghost. In the present, Ramón arrives at the house and finds the book with another story being written: “The Haunted House”. Realizing that he and Stella are almost out of time, and with the Jangly Man pursuing him through the Bellows house, Ramón calls Stella’s name and tells her to confront Sarah. In the past, Stella begins tearfully reciting the true story of Sarah Bellows: she was victimized by her family for trying to reveal the truth, which turned her into a rage-filled monster; prompting Sarah to use the power of the book to kill her family. Stella promises to tell the real story of Sarah’s life if she stops killing, assuring Sarah that she can still make a good choice. Sarah tells Stella to write the truth in the book, in blood, before she and the Jangly Man vanish. Stella is returned to the present day, and reconciles with a shaken Ramón.

Ramón, now in the U.S. army, shares an emotional goodbye with Stella before he leaves town. Stella, together with her father and a recovered Ruth, states her belief that she can still find a way to rescue Chuck and Auggie by using the book.

My Personal Thoughts

, Scary Stories doesn’t have a whole to offer. Even its dense autumnal atmosphere, its next best strength, has a slightly chewed-and-digested quality, the result of too much digital color correction. And ill-advised color correction on top of it: the chilly grey clouds of an October afternoon have been given a distinctly metallic, one might say teal overtone, while the interior lights representing the warmth of walking inside from a cold fall night have been pushed to look so warm that they tip over the edge from a cozy yellow to a sweaty, sultry orange. It robs the film of its clammy qualities and replaces it with the feeling of being trapped inside a very special Halloween edition of a Transformers movie. Like, an effectively gloomy, spooky version of that, but it’s still pretty shiny for a movie that so loudly and proudly embraces the ethos of creepy-crawly campfire stories that you can almost smell the damp leaves and smoke.

It would have to have that ethos, of course: Schwartz’s books were curated volumes of urban legends, tidied and tightened for an audience of middle-school readers, and the whole entire point of them is to provide a quick little punch of the heebie-jeebies when you hear them delivered in shadowy spaces. The movie is obliged to force these little nuggets of terror into an overall narrative framework, of course, but it retains as its central principle the power of a good scary story. In Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in the last decade of the 19th Century, a woman named Sarah Bellows was convicted in the court of popular opinion of being a child murder. In the decades since, she’s gained a reputation in death as telling stories that would kill the listener, and the huge, abandoned Bellows mansion – a hell of a good haunted house, courtesy of production designer David Brisbin – has become a focal point for brave local kids to taunt Sarah’s ghost.

On Halloween night in 1968, four such teens – aspiring horror writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), drifter Ramón (Michael Garza), helpless romantic Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and annoying jackass Chuck (Austin Zajur) – end up in that very mansion while trying to escape 18-year-old bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), and upon finding a hidden room, Stella manages to abscond with Sarah’s old book of stories. Before the night is out, the book has started acting up, with an invisible hand writing new stories in blood-like ink, with the punchline resulting in the death of the story’s protagonist. Tommy goes first, stalked by a Leatherface-looking scarecrow, and by the end of the day on November 1, the four other teens, as well as Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), find themselves helpless to stop Sarah’s rage from manifesting in the form of zombies, spiders, and other horrid productions from the childhood id.


It’s better, at least, than the last time a movie was inspired by a series of horror books for children, 2015’s useless Goosebumps, but it would still be paying Scary Stories an undue compliment to say that this all worked. The film has a hard time making any of the characters interesting, and other than Stella and sort of, loosely, Ramón, it’s not clear that it’s trying to. These are all mostly just props for the setpieces directly adapting Schwartz’s stories, with the daytime sequences inbetween unimaginative filler that find the several writers involved mostly just idly moving pieces around. To be clear, the setpieces work: director Andre Øvredal has an obvious love for the genre (this is his third horror feature, in a third completely different style, following the first-person monster movie Trollhunter and the demonic mystery chamber drama

The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and he’s indulging it shamelessly, crafting the big chase scenes that tend to be what every one of these turn into with a great deal of visual panache and exquisite timing. The sequence involving first-person POV shots of cherry red hallways is the best part of the film, but the thick windy blackness of the scarecrow scene, and the miraculous stillness that sets up the last punchline of the toeless zombie scene, are both moments that would do any storyteller proud. The film isn’t subtle; it wants to be spooky and creepy and to jump out and yell “boo!” as loud as it can after getting us good and unsettled. It does this quite well.

But that’s not very much of a movie that goes on far too long, and the material with the characters is simply not that interesting. Also, I slightly detest the 1968 setting. Points for nailing the look of the era, and the music of the era, and maybe points off for having people accidentally talk about Night of the Living Dead like they already know it’s going to become one of the defining milestones of horror cinema. But add some points back in for having NotLD screening at a drive-in, which actually needs to be a drive-in for the plot purposes of one scene.


And then take away all the points, burn them, and smack the film’s hands with a ruler for recognising that the very biggest thing going on in 1968 in the United States – in the world! – was the descent into madness of most of the world’s democracies over the Vietnam War, and the protests that rattled America and several European countries, as well as the high-profile assassinations, and all the rest. I mean, it’s good that the film recognises all of this. It just does absolutely terrible things with them. The setting – October 31 and the first week of November – means that the backdrop to the film is the presidential election contest between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, and Scary Stories goes all-on on this backdrop, including news stories about the election and news stories about the war as visual and audio backdrop in nearly every scene that isn’t a horror setpiece, and highlighting the psychological impact of the war on 18-year-old boys of both pro-war (Tommy) and anti-war (Ramón) persuasions. Which is a whole lot, but it’s manageable, on paper. In practice, though, Scary Stories has absolutely no goddamn clue what it’s doing. This is clearest in the way the film incorporates Nixon’s actual victory, a little bit of counterpoint so giddily ill-advised that I almost adore it for being so totally committed to whatever it thinks its themes are;

but it’s generally the case that the film is playing with a raging bonfire, and imagines itself to be pitching lit matches into a tin can. It is straining so hard to connect the violence and political unrest of ’68 with the violence and political unrest of our own days, while also trying to make sure that it can just be a fun horror lark; it tries to make the paranoia and persecution of witches (in the 1890s?) tie in with the paranoia and persecution of the ’60s. And it is fucking terrible at doing any of this. You can’t create a grand sociopolitical statement about America’s propensity towards violence in the past, present, and future, while also whipping up a lightweight, atmospheric “eww, gross!” genre picture for adventuresome tweens, and I genuinely cannot imagine how the filmmakers thought they were ever going to hold all of this one body. And it’s such a graceless, clumsy assemblage that it leaves me feeling much, much more annoyed by the film than I ever would have done if it were just a well-executed moody ghost story with too much orange and teal.

I will rate this movie 8/10.

Directed byAndré Øvredal
Produced by Guillermo del Toro Sean Daniel Jason F. Brown J. Miles Dale Elizabeth Grave Joshua Long Roberto Grande
Screenplay by Dan Hageman Kevin Hageman
Story by Guillermo del Toro Patrick Melton Marcus Dunstan
Based onScary Stories to Tell in the Dark
by Alvin Schwartz
Starring Zoe Colletti Michael Garza Gabriel Rush Austin Zajur Natalie Ganzhorn Austin Abrams Dean Norris Gil Bellows Lorraine Toussaint
Music by Marco Beltrami Anna Drubich
CinematographyRoman Osin
Edited byPatrick Larsgaard
Production
company
CBS Films Entertainment One 1212 Entertainment Double Dare You Productions Sean Daniel Company
Distributed byLionsgate
Release date August 9, 2019 (United States)
Running time108 minutes
CountryUnited States Canada
LanguageEnglish
Budget$25–28 million
Box office$95.5 million

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