For those unfamiliar with the source material, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on a series of Young Adult novels written by Alvin Schwartz that collected a bunch of urban legend style horror stories and packaged them as something you could read aloud to your friends and then scare them silly when the twist ending is revealed. In fact the stories in the book, which usually lasted only a couple of pages, all came with instructions for the reader to know exactly when to yell “BOO”.
Of all the things they took from the books, maybe that is the thing the makers of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark needed the most, a character to look out at the audience and yell “BOO”. Sure, it might have woken a few people up, but it at least would have broken the monotony. Instead, director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and producer/co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro take a more conventional approach to tie the material together by layering on a thin cover story of young kids trying to solve the mystery of the book before they all wind up in it.
It doesn’t work, whether you are a devotee of the Schwartz books or just a genre fan looking for a bit of film fun.
Set on Halloween night in the small Pennsylvanian town of Mills Falls, circa 1968, the movie opens by introducing us to Stella, Augie and Chuck (Zoe Margaret Colletti, Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur), three young high school seniors celebrating their last night of trick or treating like little kids by taking revenge on a local bully (Austin Abrams) with eggs, toilet paper and a flaming bag of poop. Their plan goes wrong and while hiding from the bully at the local drive-in, they meet Ramon (Michael Garza) a young Latino passing through town to his next job. Soon as the bully is gone, Stella asks the perfect question to start their adventure — “Do you want to see a haunted house?” — and the quartet is off.
What follows is a lot of exposition. A lot. Walking to the house, walking through the house and walking away from the house, the characters take turns telling Ramon (and the audience) the history of the wealthy family who owned the house and the mysterious daughter they kept hidden away from the world. It’s a daughter named Sarah, we learn, whose only contact with her fellow humans, besides the family who abused her, would be the local children who snuck up to the house to hear her tell her scary stories through the wall of the basement where she was locked away. It’s barely interesting, but necessary because it gets the book with the Scary Stories into our young heroes hands.
As it stays focused on those stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is fun to watch, although not actually very scary. The story of the zombie with the missing toe is slightly nauseating, the tale of the scarecrow mildly spooky and the one about the spiders coming out of the girl’s face is mildly terrifying. Watching the tale of the Jangly Man, a creature who falls down the chimney in parts and rebuilds himself piece by piece is about as intense as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark gets, but it ends up being more interesting to watch for the Del Toro influenced design of the creature than for anything else happening on the screen. Considering the YA audience of the source material and the PG-13 rating of the film anything more intense is out of the question.
And for some inexplicable reason, Øvredal and Del Toro believe it’s not enough to simply state at the beginning that the film takes place in 1968, or to let the costume and set designers do their job to make the period come alive on the screen. They decide to add a mini-subplot about Richard Nixon’s reelection and the escalation of US troops into Vietnam to hammer the point home. It doesn’t need to be there. It adds nothing but a distraction to the movie, especially for the book fans, since Nixon was never mentioned in Schwartz’s book and 99 percent of his youthful audience won’t even know who “tricky Dicky” was.
Maybe if the cast was stronger, the movie would have worked better, but with the exception of Colletti as the young woman who figures it all out (kind of like a red-headed Velma in a Scooby Doo Mystery), the rest of the cast are just up there marking time waiting for their story to be written in the book so we can watch them die. Waiting for the kills might be what a lot of horror films boil down to, especially the PG-13 kind, but the wait watching Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark feels a lot longer and the payoff a lot less.
- John Black, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark