“Scary Stories” Will Frighten Kids, But for Adults, This Isn’t “It”
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, adapted from the popular fictional anthologies written by Alvin Schwartz, has the unenviable timing of opening in the week after the horrible shooting tragedies. Fictional ghost stories can’t hold a candle to the horrors of the real world. PG-13 rated frighteners rarely have the impact of the R-rated kind. Scary Stories also strains to employ a lot of the glib tone of Stranger Things. Finally, by taking a slew of short stories that made up the series of books and placing them in an overarching narrative of misfit kids discovering the awful history of their small town, the film invites far too many comparisons to Stephen King’s It.
The marketing of this film should’ve emphasized the source material more and the appeal of it to younger audiences. After all, the original books were for the YA audience, and so is this movie. To the junior high crowd, this should be appealing and provide fun frights. Adult audiences? That will likely not be the case. The posters and ads have really been pushing Guillermo del Toro’s involvement as executive producer and one of the five screenwriters, along with Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Marcus Dunstan, and Patrick Melton, but this effort does not have the same horror sheen of his previous efforts like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or Crimson Peak (2015), both rated R.
Instead, this one pulls a lot of its genre punches, clearly aiming it at younger audiences. The plot promises lots of evil revenge from a psychotic ghost haunting a local haunted house, but it soon becomes clear that the film doesn’t want to commit to violence or bloodletting in the way that both It and Stranger Things have. It infers most of such atrocities, and that’s fine, but narratively, it leads to a lot of head-scratching.
The organizing story introduces us to the misfit teen characters of Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Ramon (Michael Garza), Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). They’re out for kicks on Halloween in 1968 in the small town of Mill Valley. That moniker comes from the paper mill owned by the wealthy Bellows family established there that put the ‘burg on the map.
Soon enough, they make enemies out of the town bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) when they egg his car. And their lousy judgment is further exploited when they visit the Bellows’ old mansion and steal away the book of short stories written by crazed daughter Sarah almost a century ago.
Soon enough, Sarah’s ghost starts writing new stories into her journal, the kind that features the teens’ names and foretells their doom in real-time. That’s a great hook and the ultimate “ticking clock” plot device. When the actual deathly fates arrive though, the filmmakers, including director André Øvredal, lose their nerve. Tommy gets chased by the scarecrow from his family’s cornfield, but his demise gets shot blurrily and suffers from a frenzied edit. Even worse, a local cop (Gil Bellows) investigates, but the story doesn’t clue us into details of his findings.
Augie is next, and his ‘disappearance’ seems as vague as Tommy’s. He ends up finding a toe in his stew for dinner while he’s home alone, but as a female corpse clomps up the stairs to reclaim her lost appendage, the dots fail to be connected. The ghoul grabs Augie under the bed, and he gets dragged away into the ether, but it’s all inferred and shadowy. Where did they go exactly? Is it hell, Sarah’s world, what? And wouldn’t it have been better for his doom to be tied into a killer clown, considering so much was made out of the “Pierrot” costume he wore for Halloween? The vagueness, and such randomness of death, don’t play as smart enough here, even for horror aimed at kids.
From there, the same schtick plays out with Sarah writing a new story in real-time while the misfits battle for their lives, but the kids fail to get smarter. When Chuck is chased through hospital corridors by a monstrous Pale Lady, it’s very creepy that she keeps getting closer no matter what hall the boy runs down. When she’s finally a few feet away, Chuck lets her grab him and ‘consume’ him into her flabby belly. By this point, the fourth run-in with Sarah’s stories coming to life, couldn’t Chuck have been savvier? Why didn’t he dodge the Pale Lady or start a fire in the hallway? We in the audience would be rewarded for rooting for a kid who went down fighting.
There’s a lot of glib, smart-aleck banter, with these oversexed, yet under-experienced children talking trash, and in such moments, you can feel the influence of Stranger Things. Still, it’s not as clever as the Duffer Bros.’ Netflix effort. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may look like a pricey, adult, del Toro production, but its tone is aimed far younger. In fact, it feels so kid-ish at times that it comes off like a really expensive Goosebumps TV episode from the 1990s.
The organizing story may work as the glue holding all the short stories together here, but it also draws it far too close to King’s classic It. (The sequel to the smash hit from two years ago, opens in theaters this September.) You can practically tick the It boxes as you watch this film: the misfit kids, the quaint New England town, the evil town legacy, the haunted house, and an evil specter using the children’s fears against them. Granted, this may be a trope that you’d find in a lot of the horror genre, but it just plays too much like a King imitation. The three books in the Scary Stories series had dozens of frightening shorts each, so wouldn’t an anthology made more sense for this big-screen adaptation?
After all, anthology storytelling worked for the horror film Creepshow 37 years ago. It worked for The ABC’s of Death in 2012. And it certainly works for the Netflix series Black Mirror today. By couching all of the original shorts in the over-arching small-town kids’ story, this adaptation short-shrifts the shorts. There’s not enough of them here, and that makes them feel sketchy.
There are many ways to showcase the beloved Schwarz stories that have been terrorizing kids for years. Sadly, this version just isn’t it.
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