Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
The book series “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” proved to be hugely influential to US teenagers of the 80s, as they brought original and terrifying tales to life (with a helpful dose of the petrifying illustrations). Horror books are effective in that they leave much of the characterization of monsters and terrors up to the reader’s imagination; however, in the hands of producer (and part screenwriter) Guillermo del Toro, such creature designs and frights would seem to be apt for enhancement.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) is an amalgamation of various stories from the book series, tied together in a witty way. The film, set in a small-town in the 1968, follows a group of friends (Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur) on Halloween as they break into a haunted house. There they find the book of a murdered girl who used to make up scary stories. This book turns out to be cursed, with the ghost of the girl writing stories that incorporate the friends that trespassed on her home; as she writes them, they turn true.
The film borrows heavily from many other horror films, and even makes clear nods to them. However, Scary Stories is able to infuse enough of the originality and true horror from the written source material to whip up truly dreadful moments. The chemistry between the young cast is helpful in providing a unity in a short amount of time for the characters, but herein lies one of the problems.
In wanting to incorporate multiple stories, the beginning of the film feels very cramped and rushed, with blunt expository scenes, and forced character mash-ups. There was very little room for the actors and their appealing characters to breathe in, as the story was keen to move onto the next fright. For a scary movie, this would make sense, but without a bigger attachment to the characters, their perils and fates have less weight on viewers. There was also an incongruous need to cater to certain clichés, such as the roaming Hispanic, on the run from the law and knowing how to perfectly pick locks; or the dark magic connoisseur old black woman. For a movie that is making fun of its genre or is trying to analyze the tropes of its category this would make sense, but with the original concept that Scary Stories has, this seemed like a completely outdated aspect.
As for the scares themselves, while the creature designs and execution were extremely effective, director Andre Øvredal relied too much on jump-scares when a simple dread and restraint would have worked wonders. It seemed like a lost opportunity that del Toro was involved only on the surface level of this project; a keen group of viewers will no doubt be curious as to how a del Toro version would have turned out.
In the end, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an effective horror film in the “scares” department. I certainly had many moments of having my throat clench in the utmost shock. I was somewhat surprised that this received a PG-13 rating, however, as many of its horror scenes and gore would seem far beyond many R-rated horror movies of today. Besides the surface level scares, and some enjoyable banter between the young cast, the film doesn’t dig deep enough into its potential and analytical capabilities for its genre, leaving a feeling of lost opportunity with such iconic and unique stories.