Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has too much story, not enough scary
Like many people of my generation it is hard to hear Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark without having some sort of reaction. Horror is my favorite genre, but that has not always been the case (I once left a sleepover because the other girls were playing Bloody Mary in the bathroom). Nevertheless middle school Tori borrowed those books and tried to act like they were the coolest, even though she was secretly terrified. I used to babysit my sisters a lot so stories like “The Babysitter” scarred me. As an adult who now loves these stories, I was excited to see Alvin Schwartz’s collection come to life in the film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Øvredal and produced by Guillermo Del Toro.
The film takes place in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania on Halloween in 1968. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) try to pull a prank on one of the town bullies and meet a mysterious stranger named Ramón (Michael Garza) who helps the gang by letting them hide out in his car. They decide to celebrate the rest of their Halloween by breaking into a haunted house that belonged to the Bellows Family who at one point was the richest family in town. However their family had a dark past, their daughter Sarah was shut off from the world because of a disfigurement of some kind. Eventually Sarah was accused of a series of child murders in the late 1880s. Sarah committed suicide and the rest of the family vanished. Sarah was known to tell scary stories through the walls to any of the children who asked for them. The teens find a way into the house and Stella discovers Sarah’s secret room as well as her book full of scary stories. Stella takes the book home with her and realizes she has awoken Sarah’s spirit and new stories begin to be added to the book, stories that now star Stella and her friends. Stella and gang must figure out how to stop this before more children start to get murdered in the town.
The film repeats this idea that stories can be bad or good but regardless telling these stories over and over can make them real. This is not necessarily a new idea, but it seems that they do try to make it their own and the visuals of the book being written before your eyes is great. The film is only an hour and 47 minutes but it feels a bit longer. I think much of this has to do with the fact that the film is so plot heavy and does so much work having the teens give the audience a ton of exposition. This made the moments with the different creatures attacking people seem few and far between. This is also one of several 2019 films that seem to be pointed at and feature younger characters. We just got Child’s Play and many are eagerly awaiting It Chapter Two, both of which are rated R, so unfortunately for the PG-13 Scary Stories I think it gets a bit lost in the shuffle. This is especially true with just how saturated this year has been overall with great horror. This isn’t to say that PG-13 horror can’t hold its own or doesn’t have a place but this film could have seriously done with some more action and scares.
Another issue with the film for me was that I did not really understand the reason for it to take place in 1968. The film does not even seem to look or feel that way. In the backdrop everyone is watching Richard Nixon about to get reelected, and people feel tension with more people getting drafted for Vietnam. I felt that the movie did not do a great job at connecting the historical background and significance of this time with what the kids are experiencing. I also felt the film did not utilize their Latinx and black characters enough. Ramón deals with racism in the town but that is not necessarily explored. A character named Lou Lou is introduced who lived with the Bellows family and when children started disappearing in the 1800s they were blamed for teaching Sarah “black magic”. It seems that the film tries to subvert stereotypes for that time but they also do not give these characters much to do.
Other actors like Dean Norris felt incredibly underutilized. Although there is some historical pieces the movie does well that I would like to go into later in the review, I woke up this morning and knew something was bugging me. At one point the children listen to an audio recording of Sarah receiving electro-shock therapy, this is after the film makes a point at telling you Sarah died in the late 1800s and electro-shock was used for the first time in 1938. Maybe this is because of the cultural awareness around electro shock and its use on people in mental institutions is much higher compared to other treatments but I feel they could have found another way to get this point across.
Although I felt the film was pretty mediocre there were certain things I thought the film did really well. This film does have some historically significant arguments peppered into its back story. Sarah is often referred to as a witch and then is institutionalized by her family. As a historian with a focus on women’s history I felt that this made good connections between how women were “different” got labeled as witches and by the time we get to the 19th century women could be labeled as “mad” or “hysterical.'‘ Øvredal also directed The Autopsy of Jane Doe which tackles so similar concepts, I won’t get into my need for women to be telling these stories but I still appreciate that Øvredal is bringing some of these concepts to a larger audience. They also reference a real institution that was here in Pennsylvania; Pennhurst Asylum so there was a decent amount of research done.
I think some of my personal disappointment might stem from the fact that it did not feel this was made for me, but instead for a younger audience to appreciate these iconic stories and I really hope it does. I think there is still a lot of enjoyment and scares to be had for a younger audience. There is a great message for pain is passed from person to person. The speech boils down to, the things that happen in our lives can sometimes really suck and leave us with rage and trauma, but regardless of our past we are responsible for the things we do to those around us. I really appreciated and liked that moment especially for a 2019 audience. I also thoroughly appreciated that the teenage actors that were cast looked and acted like teenagers Although I wanted more of the creatures, the ones they showed looked great and I felt they really paid tribute to the iconic look that gave many of us nightmares as a child and still induces shivers when I flip through the pages as an adult. It does feel like they appreciate and enjoy these horror classics and since so much has been done with other book series like Goosebumps, I hope that they find other ways to bring more of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in other mediums.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark opens in Philly theaters today.