Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
Written by Dan & Kevin Hagerman
Directed by André Øvredal
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a book published in 1981, compiled and rewritten by Alvin Schwartz. Schwartz was a writer who was primarily interested in folklore and wordplay, writing more than fifty books on and about these topics. His most famous, of course, is Scary Stories and the two follow up texts. The books contributed to many nightmares for children growing up in the 1980s and 90s, most notably because of the grotesque illustrations of Stephen Gammell. Gammell was also not primarily a horror creator, having illustrated over sixty children’s books, including one of my favorite picture books. When the Relatives Came. This book, like so many texts and pieces of nostalgic media, has been snatched up by their publisher’s parent media corporation to be turned into a movie.
I first assumed these would be an anthology-style movie like Creepshow, but those types of pictures are not typically big moneymakers, so instead, we get a framing device that allows the stories from the first book to happen to the characters. Set in 1968 rural Pennsylvania, we follow Stella, a high schooler and amateur horror writer. On Halloween night, she tags along with her friends Auggie and Chuck to get revenge on some upperclassmen bullies. The ensuing chase leads them to get help from Ramon, a young Latino man passing through town. Once safe, Stella, wanting to impress Ramon, suggests they visit the Bellows mansion, home to a tragic and seemingly cursed wealthy family in the region. Sarah Bellows, one of the daughters, was rumored to have been locked away by the family and would tell scary stories through the walls of basement dungeon to children loitering outside. Turns out the stories are real, and before you know it, the horrors of Bellows’ stories are coming to life and killing Stella’s friends.
There are genuinely horrifying moments during Scary Stories’ runtime. The Pale Lady, in particular, is so well done and disturbing, including the way she finishes off her victims. That scene, which occurs near the end of the second act, was put together with a lot of thought about how to evoke the most robust sense of dread. The lighting switches from standard hospital fluorescents to an almost giallo-like red, drenching everything in the color of blood. The twist of the Pale Lady being inescapable no matter how much her victim tries just compounds the horror. It’s a great horror sequence that gets under your skin. That said, the film has a lot of problems, most of them being tonal.
Scary Stories is rated PG-13 (in the US), which brings about some expectations of what will transpire. The horror is not gory or bloody, people do die, but they are pulled off-screen or bloodless stabbed with a pitchfork in one instance. Profanity is a minimum, and the main character and her love interest are so chaste for teenagers sex & nudity are never given a thought. The plot feels like a slightly elevated Goosebumps story and even shares some eyebrow-raising parallels with the Goosebumps film (stories coming to life). In some moments, this feels like a bigger budget Disney Channel movie, and in others, it manages to capture the tone of the books. Most of the time, the plot relies on predictable tropes that aren’t done with elan, and the ending, in particular, is a groan-inducing wink at a potential sequel.
Alvin Schwartz & Stephen Gammell’s books were a textured and evocative childhood experience with many of the stories still holding up when read by adults. The film based on their seminal text feels like most of it has been chewed up and devoured by a corporate machine, ironing out the most interesting wrinkles and messy bits to create work that is seen as palatable to mass audiences. Reading Scary Stories as a child is an intimate experience, curled up under a blanket, the room dissolving away, leaving you in those frightening tales. Sadly, the movie misses this mark but made a decent attempt.