Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
“Stories hurt, stories heal”. These are the opening words of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark – the newest horror feature by director André Øvredal (Autopsy of Jane Doe, Troll Hunter) and producer Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) to make it to the big screen. As the opening words suggest, this film aims to make big statements about the nature and role of stories in our lives and the powers that reside within them. However, the biggest question surrounding this film is the following: does this story hurt or heal the hearts of horror fans like me?
Scary Stories is set in 1968 and tells the… ahem.. tale of Stella and her group of friends (Auggie, Ramon and Chuck) who have to fight for their survival when they unwittingly release the spirit of a vengeful authoress by stealing her compendium of scary stories from an old haunted mansion. Soon after the book is taken, each person who found themselves in the mansion on that night falls prey to some horrible fate. And it is no coincidence that alongside each incident a new story is penned in the book and we bear witness as the characters realise they are the unlucky protagonists of each new scary story. An interesting enough premise, but if you like your horror movies without a supernatural element in sight, you’ve already lost the battle here.
The biggest claim to fame that this film has is that it is based on three collections of horror short stories written by Alvin Schwartz and originally illustrated by Stephen Gammell. These books are notorious for the macabre and haunting images that accompany each of the stories. You can google them and see for yourself. They are nightmare fuel for children and adults alike and it is easy to see why these books have garnered such a cult following. And sure enough, in a move that can only be described as “so 2019” (where the whiff of money and nostalgia is too strong to turn down), a film simply had to be made. I will admit that even though my hate for the Hollywood nostalgia machine is substantial, my love for good horror is even more substantial, and as a result I was cautiously optimistic for this film.
Easily the best part of this film is the monster designs and appearances. Del Toro is well-known for his love and respect for the onscreen creature, and with him as producer, you can be sure that a lot of attention was paid to the presentation of these ghastly creations. The creatures were recreated very faithfully according to the illustrations they appeared in originally and fans of the original books will be quite satisfied with their onscreen transition. Among the highlights are a self-assembling corpse that doesn’t know how to walk without using all its limbs and a smiling fat lady with a penchant for hugs (it’s creepier in the film). As dead as some of these creatures were, they definitely showed more life than their recent Lion counterparts, I can tell you that much.
The film features a relatively unknown and young cast that does the job for the most part. Truthfully, the whole cast and atmosphere came off as a bit of a knockoff Stranger Things set in the 1960s (but that might just be the Nostalgia FatigueTM speaking). I thought the young actress who played Stella (Zoe Colletti) was quite convincing and most of the supporting cast did a functional job. However, I did find the comic relief character Chuck (Austin Zajur) a little grating with very few of the comic jabs landing. Similarly, the villainous jock Tommy (Austin Abrams), who terrorises our protagonists, has the line delivery of a dentistry patient with a mouthful of local anesthetic. The biggest star power to be found in the film comes in the shape of Dean Norris (Hank in Breaking Bad) in a largely thankless role that only gets milked for some emotional payoff toward the end of the film. So if it’s star power you are looking for, this ain’t where you’re gonna find it. Unfortunately, if you were looking for well-defined characters or meaningful story arcs, you aren’t going to find them here either. Most of the characters in this film suffer from being rather flat and one-dimensional. Basically, each character has ONE defining event or aspect and the audience is supposed to hang their hat on this one thing for any meaningful character definition. For instance, the main defining trait of our main character Stella is that her mom left when she was young and now she is a parentified child. They mention this a couple of times throughout the film but does it matter in the end? Not really. It’s not film-breakingly bad, but is it so much to ask for the characters to have some semblance of depth? For a film about stories, these character stories are relatively flat.
So, the film doesn’t give the characters much to do but it also doesn’t give the characters much to say. The script for the film has all but passable dialogue that mainly serves as exposition to the story. However, I think my favourite line from the film comes at the point where our protagonists realise that their fates and the stories in the book are intertwined. It is here that our main character sobbingly exclaims: “You don’t read the book. The book reads you!”. It was at that point that I had to downgrade the dialogue quality from Shakespeare to shake-my-head (this joke probably belongs right alongside that line though).
From a horror perspective, I am having a hard time deciding whether the film-maker was bold or silly when choosing against the tried-and-tested anthology-based structure in the film. After all, the short storied nature of the source material is basically begging for it. However, instead of focusing on singular horror vignettes (like the excellent Ghost Stories from 2018), each of the “stories” in this film is woven into a relatively compelling narrative. Although the narrative itself is wrapped up rather neatly toward the end of the film (it’s nothing we haven’t seen before though) with a nice message about the power and destructive nature of stories, it serves to defuse some of the horror potential of the film. The film feels compelled to give a reason for the preceding events and rationalises every horrific event through its narrative lens. In my mind, horror is best left unexplained and if the characters are stuck in a situation they cannot control or understand, the horrific impact is so much greater. Your mileage may vary on this aspect.
The film also suffers from a severe case of “jump-scare”. Even though some shots are beautifully constructed and some of the monsters are genuinely creepy in their visual impact, any credibility leaves the room as soon as the music dies down and the audience is made to wait for yet another loud sound effect in the parade of jump-scares that permeates this film. This is lazy horror direction at its core, and something I would be happy to see die out in the horror film genre as a whole.
To the film’s credit, it does go to some length in not restoring the status quo of the events after the story is resolved, which was quite refreshing. This means that the characters in the film that are killed actually stayed dead. But in yet another “so 2019” maneuver, the film sets up a possible sequel that threatens to find a way to bring back everyone that went missing throughout the film. This hinges on the apparent assumption that somehow the film did a good job in getting you to care about the characters throughout the run-time of the film. I can’t say that I am champing at the bit to see if they can bring back the one-dimensional wonders of this film.
Scary Stories is a relatively enjoyable film at its core that struggles to rise to the heights of greatness or even mediumness. Tonally, it comes across as an adventure film with horror elements rather than the other way around. In addition, the film does seem to pull its punches in the more horrific sequences opting for barely any blood or violence on screen. The film has a decent enough message about the purpose and use of stories in our lives that some might find affecting. This leads me to believe it might be more impactful for younger, less discerning audiences.
For a jaded horror fan like myself, I found the film mostly passable whilst also lamenting the fact that there really isn’t anything particularly inventive on display. This is a shame given the fantastic source material at its disposal. This is a story that certainly does not need a sequel and, in my mind, that is the real horror of this film: the fact that in our current day and age we can’t just be left with a good enough story – it has to be turned into a not-good franchise. This is a story that has enough meat on its bones to warrant a single film, but unfortunately it will start hurting if stretched out any longer. I give this film a severed toe out of ten.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is directed by André Øvredal, and in local cinemas from 8 August 2019.
Emerging artist and lecturer working in South Africa. Interested in messes, horror, existentialism and the creative process. Ink is my spirit medium.