Everything old is new again and so, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz’s seminal series of children’s horror story anthologies, is now a big budget Hollywood spook show with the Guillermo Del Toro seal of approval on it. It’s actually surprising that it’s taken this long, as there’s no doubt that the book series was a landmark in youth horror literature, spinning tales of the macabre that would traumatize kids and anger conservative parent groups years before “Goosebumps” became a cottage industry.
But how do you turn a whole bunch of bite-sized stories into a feature film, especially after Are You Afraid of the Dark? (which is also being rebooted for television, wouldn’t you know…) already nailed the screen equivalent of kids telling scary stories in the dark? Since there’s certainly been a market for horror anthology films in recent years, the idea of a young-adult version sounds like a rather fresh and intriguing idea. Instead, the five screenwriters credited here (Del Toro among them) decide to create a whole new narrative that’s more indebted to what’s hip and cool in mainstream horror right now (*cough*Stranger Things*cough*) than the unsettling folklore that Schwartz played on.
In the rural American town of Mill Valley, high-schooler Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is an aspiring writer and horror fanatic whose dreams are much bigger than the regressive community she lives in. But when her mother left years back, she put the blame on herself and committed herself to taking care of her depressed dad (Dean Norris). On Halloween night, however, Stella and her friends still decide to have some fun by breaking into the local haunted house, the site of a series of child murders committed by the previous resident, Sarah Bellows. Once inside, Stella stumbles across Sarah’s infamous book of scary stories, which was rumoured to have been written in the blood of her victims. Once she brings the book home, it magically starts writing stories again all by itself. Except this time, the stories are about her and her friends, rehashing their own personal fears and then bringing them frighteningly to life.
For all the thematic emphasis on being original and creative, Scary Stories is a pretty generic affair, saddling the supposed horror with the same kind of boring ghost mythology backstory that we’ve seen in any number of supernatural flicks before. You see, Sarah only continues to haunt these kids because she’s really mad about the injustices she had to suffer when she was alive, leading to a J-horror like search for who she really was and how to put a stop to it.
Really, the movie just feels like a more softened version of the recent reboot of It, with the same kind of character dynamics, plot machinations, and dark ultra-slick “atmosphere”. Oh yeah, it’s also set in 1968, a detail that you kind of keep forgetting since there’s not really any reason to it other than to throw in some vintage cars and make some surface-level connections between Vietnam and Nixon and today’s political climate. Honestly, I would have been more interested to see how this tale would have played out in today’s tech-obsessed world rather than in an approximation of the past that feels so inauthentic.
Scary Stories does still have some moments of inspiration, particularly in the creation of the beasties and the one aspect that is directly taken from the source material. Creatures like the Jangly Man and the Pale Lady are visualized unnervingly enough to provide some nightmare fuel for younger viewers. But even so, the scares too often come from the same places they always do, resulting in a feeling of always being three steps ahead of the action. Director André Øvredal may have become somewhat of a hot name in horror after Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, but for me, he still has yet to do anything that’s left a distinct impression.
And then, in what is becoming annoyingly routine for studio horror movies, the film doesn’t really end, instead hastily laying the groundwork for what I guess will become a whole Scary Stories franchised universe at some point (depending on how the box office receipts are, of course). Unless they up their game, maybe the title going forward should be changed to Mildly Disconcerting Stories to Tell in the Dark.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: Horror
- Release Date: 8/9/2019
- Directed by: André Øvredal
- Starring: Austin Zajur, Dean Norris, Gabriel Rush, Gil Bellows, Michael Garza, Natalie Ganzhorn, Zoe Margaret Colletti
- Produced by: Guillermo del Toro
- Written by: Dan Hageman, Guillermo del Toro, Kevin Hageman, Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton
- Studio: CBS Films, eOne, Lionsgate