Documentary Releases: Scary Stories (2019) - Reviewed

Always being fascinated by the strange and macabre, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz were some of my favorites when I was a kid.  I have fond memories of checking these books out at my elementary school library and poring over the creepy stories, and the terrifyingly unforgettable illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  When I heard that the books were adapted into a movie to come out this summer with Guillermo Del Toro attached as one of the producers, I was both curious and skeptical.  For sure, it will be a task to make a movie of a book with such a distinctive art style, that also means so much to so many on a deeply personal level.

Among other things, the exploration of this book having a profound impact and holding its grasp on many people’s imaginations seems to be one of the main themes of Scary Stories. This documentary chronicles the impact these collections of books have had on a generation of children, their influence on other’s works, and also follows the author’s son and a woman who was made infamous in Seattle by her quest to ban the book from elementary school libraries. 

Interspersed with interviews with other children’s books authors (most notably R.L. Stine), illustrators, artists, librarians, and fans, the documentary uses an animation style in some points that is reminiscent of the unique style of Stephen Gammell.  Throughout, Schwartz’s son talks emotionally of his father’s personality, and his writing style to give a sense of why the man felt compelled to write these books. 

Along the way, the audience is introduced to a girl with a very impressive sleeve of tattoos featuring the artwork, various musicians, and a wedding photographer.  I would have liked to see discussions with artists who were inspired by the books and their unique creations rather than direct fanart.  That being said, the sculpture of the cover of the first book done by one of the artists featured is incredible. 

The final act of the documentary deals heavily with the woman who sought to ban the book in the 1980s as she travels to meet Schwartz’s son.  They meet, they eat cheese and crackers, and they discuss the book.  It’s not that interesting.  In fact, I don’t think the filmmakers thought it was that particularly interesting either, since at one point their dialogue fades out and the music swells in.  The audience is treated to a montage of the two talking, gesticulating, and laughing.  

As a person who read and adored the books, and even sought out the other books authored by Alvin Schwartz, I was excited to watch this documentary because I had wanted to know about the author, the illustrator, and the history of the creation of the book.  I got a sliver of that, but I was left wanting more.  It is upsetting that there were so many people who had tried to ban the book in its time, and as a child during this period, I had no idea.  It made me happy to see that there were groups of adults, seeing how important the book was to kids, and fought to keep the books on the shelves. 

This documentary is for those who might have heard about the movie adaptation coming out this summer, but not know much about the book or the impact that it had on a generation.  If you are as big of a fan as some of the people interviewed in this movie, you’ll feel some friendly slaps on the back from people you will most likely relate to, but don’t expect to learn too much about the history of the book itself. 

--Mara Powell