Going into the film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark there was a mild sense of intrigue. On one hand I was excited to see how the stories transferred to the screen. Having grown up reading the original—terrifying—young adult books by Alvin Schwartz with the accompanying disturbing illustrations by Stephen Gammell, it seemed from the trailers that the imagery was quite reminiscent of the source material. The reverse side of this is that it seemed to be another Hollywood nostalgia-bate laced money grab, with little to offer horror fans beyond a few monsters lifted from the books. Unfortunately, this was truer than I originally anticipated.
The film follows four teenagers in the fall of 1968 who are attempting to unravel the secrets behind a mysterious book that composes stories on its own with the resulting actions taking place in real life. All of the stories written in the book are derived from the Scary Stories series only with alternate plots and characters that coordinate around the film’s protagonists. Unfortunately, the plot felt very close to the 2015 Jack Black film Goosebumps (which I enjoyed), only less fun. Scary Stories is rated PG-13 and it seemed the film makers (produced by Guillermo Del Toro) attempted to toe the line between R-rated horror imagery and PG-themed plot devices. To its credit, the source material is a young adult book and, in all honesty, I wasn’t searching for an R-rated gore fest.
Scary Stories does capture the monster imagery well. There were moments throughout the film that were pulled directly from the books’ illustrations. The sequence with the scarecrow, Harold—although, not following the original story—was the best sequence in the film. Other examples include a cringe-worthy stew, and the ‘white woman’ that many thirty-something adults will fondly remember.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t borrow enough form the books as Goosebumps did and a majority of the film falls flat in this regard. For a film focused on 1990’s nostalgia for a generation raised on the books there isn’t enough ‘nostalgia’ to carry the film to completion. A large swathe of the movie is slowly paced without appropriate payoffs (too many basic jump scares), the characters are forgettable, and deep symbolic psychological allegorical critique is completely absent (I would say cultural critique is gone, but it’s forcefully shoved in. More on that later.). The acting is good, for the most part. The characters that are written, however, are dull and one-dimensionally. There is a character development reveal in the latter-half of the film that was underwhelming, to say the least.
Another issue the film suffers from is a confusion over the intended audience. For a nostalgia-laced film directed at thirty-years olds who grew up with the books, why is the setting 1968? The stories presented in the books are somewhat timeless and avoid suturing the plot into specific temporal localities. Beyond the countless imagery of Richard Nixon being elected and the background knowledge of the war in Vietnam, it was unclear why the film was placed in this era. For some reason, I kept waiting for the plot to jump ahead to the mid-1990’s or modern day, hence, linking the 1960’s with contemporary issues. However, the film stayed in 1968 and hounded away at the Nixon election that clearly was supposed to fuse with the era of Donald Trump; although, this was a weak and lazy attempt to inculcate the film with modern-day politics (what does Vietnam have to do with Trump? Also, Vietnam was escalated under President Johnson, so not much of the historical criticism made sense and fell flat). Children attending the film also will have limited, if any, knowledge of this historical era. It should have been re-written.
In terms of contemporary horror films, Scary Stories was safely written and directed. The plot was predictable, which slowed down the pacing and felt mostly boring. Its overreliance on jump scares as opposed to genuine unnerving tension and imagery was unfortunate. A majority of its ‘scares’ came from the overused shot sequencing of: A) introduce a horrific creature. B) Tightly frame the main character/potential victim within the shot. C) Completely silence the extradiegetic film score so that all is heard is the character’s heavy breathing. D) Blast loud, unnatural, sound into the theater as the character meets their doom. Most of the film is edited to look extremely dark and I found myself attempting to make sense of where the characters were within the framing. In an era of smart, masterfully-directed horror films such as Us, It Follows, and the most recent Ari Aster masterpiece Midsommar, this type of horror feels bland and uninspired.
Don’t even get me started on the film’s conclusion.
Even though Scary Stories reproduces some of the disturbing imagery from the books, it falls flat in most all other areas. While exclusively borrowing from Goosebump’s plot structure it failed to capture the fun and nostalgia of the aforementioned film and was, personally, disappointing.
Film Score: C-
Horror Film Score: D