REVIEW: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Lionsgate

The following is a review of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — Directed by André Øvredal.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of a trilogy of children’s horror short story collections of the same name from author Alvin Schwartz. The film has been in development since 2013, and now Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal has finally brought the children’s short stories to the big screen in the form of a horror film that’s frankly really enjoyable if you know what you’re getting into. This is just scary enough to severely frighten teens, but I don’t think it is so frightening that it’ll haunt them at night unless they are young tweens, but you and your kids’ mileage may vary. It’s a cute and fairly effective horror film that, I think, has the potential to become a favorite for teens. Those who dug Annabelle Comes Home will be happy with this similarly cutesy horror film.

André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes place in the late-1960s around the time of the Vietnam war, and the film follows Stella Nicholls (played by Zoe Colletti), a horror-obsessed aspiring author, and her best friends Auggie (played by Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (played by Austin Zajur) as they suddenly find themselves in a tricky situation. While out on the town dressed up for Halloween, they decide to pull a prank on their bully Tommy Milner (played by Austin Abrams), who then chases them until they enter a car during a drive-in movie screening of Night of the Living Dead.

The car belongs to Ramón Morales (played by Michael Garza), a secretive out-of-towner, and, following an encounter with Milner, Ramón joins Stella and her friends on their way to the local haunted house, which once housed the subject of multiple urban legends, Sarah Bellows, a storyteller and alleged witch whose stories, according to local legend, were deadly and written with actual human blood. After a spooky experience in the haunted house, Stella and her friends quickly discover that Sarah Bellows’ storybook, which Stella stole from the abandoned property, is not just a normal book as classmates start to disappear and stories detailing their grisly demise suddenly appear in the book. As Sarah Bellows’ stories start picking them off one by one, Stella and her friends must find a way to stop Bellows’ stories from coming true.

Though Andy Muschietti’s IT features children in the lead roles, I would say that it is much too frightening for children or even tweens to watch. That is a bloody and horrifying movie that gives adults nightmares. On the other end of the spectrum, we find Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps, itself an adaptation of children’s horror stories (I read some of those novels, and I loved them), which, frankly, put me to sleep. I don’t think I ever finished watching it, because I was disappointed that it wasn’t as spooky or scary as I remember the books being (though I can’t say for sure that this isn’t just the nostalgia that is making me remember the books differently than they actually were).

André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark owes a lot to both IT and Goosebumps as I think it finds a lot of success by being something of a mixture of the two. This movie isn’t bloody and it isn’t horrifying, but it is scary and, at times, it looks so much like an adult’s horror film that I would honestly understand if some audiences felt deceived by the look of the film. I think this is a perfect horror film for teenagers and older tweens, who will probably be spooked and possibly lightly scarred by the imagery of the film. But the friendship at the center of the film as well as the lighthearted comedy makes it feel young at heart and therefore not as haunting. This movie, honestly, identifies precisely what I wanted Goosebumps to be.

Øvredal’s feature film also owes a lot to Stranger Things and especially Final Destination as these two entertainment texts, in particular, seem to have provided the formula for the film. Just like in the aforementioned cult horror film, we watch our main characters run to their classmates’ houses to check up on them but always seem destined to just miss out on saving them. Watching a group of young friends trying to solve a supernatural mystery was one of the great thrills of watching the nostalgic Stranger Things series, and, even though Øvredal’s film doesn’t have as well-written or well-performed characters as the hit Netflix series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark should appeal to fans of the show. My main problems with the film are with the dialogue and the ending. I think the film includes troublingly cliched dialogue about the power of ‘a story,’ and there were one or two clumsy or obvious attempts at commenting on today’s politics that I didn’t think worked quite as well as they might’ve on paper.

As I have elaborated on in previous reviews of his films, co-writer and producer Guillermo Del Toro has been known to make films about rising up against governments or institutions disguised as films about monsters or horror. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark very well could be an allegory for the Vietnam War and the lies of political propaganda and war-making, as there are things hidden in the background of pivotal scenes that, to me, appear to be meant for more than simply setting the mood and specifying the period. There is a reason for the setting, and I think this is it. The lies that the city in the film was built on and the harm they caused may be connected to the war-making and propaganda of the era. As the film says, stories can hurt, just like stories can kill. It is all right there in the film, though perhaps Øvredal should’ve paid more attention to the subtext so that this was more ingrained in the film. Though I would say that it is an imperfect allegory, I really do appreciate its inclusion. Before I watched the film, I certainly did not expect to be thinking about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or the Pentagon Papers as I was writing my review of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

But I digress, the biggest strength of the film are the creatures, creature effects, and scary story sequences in which Sarah Bellows’ stories come alive. The story about a corpse looking for her ‘big toe’ was shot in a way that, in moments, reminded me of Crimson Peak, and it was probably my favorite of the stories as a result. But the sequence with the pale lady, though it might’ve overstayed its welcome a bit, was perfectly disconcerting and disturbing. In the end, I think André Øvredal has crafted a thrillingly spooky and possibly quite rewatchable young adult horror film. I can say for sure that I would’ve loved it if I saw it as a young teen, and, even now as an adult, I really dug the movie.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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