Cinematic Releases: Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark (2019) - Reviewed

Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series changed me. As a fan of anything spooky growing up, my tiny hands found its way upon a copy of the first volume in grade school, and I was never the same. Terrified yet titillated, I feasted my eyes upon Stephen Gammell’s gruesome pen and charcoal illustrations, and it was the pivotal moment when I realized horror isn’t all rubber bats and sheet ghosts. Needless to say, when I heard a film adaptation was being made with the imaginative Guillermo del Toro’s involvement, I had high hopes that it would do justice to the source material, and I am thankful to report that it did.

The plot plays out like a more adult version of the 2015 Goosebumps film. On Halloween of 1968, a mischievous group of teenagers visits an abandoned house with a dark past involving the troubled Sarah Bellowsdaughter of an affluent family in townhanging herself in the basement. While they explore the house, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) finds a mysterious book and takes it home with her. Little does she know the book has a strange way of writing itself and affecting those around her in the most macabre of ways. Grisly undead entities attempt to murder her friends, and Stella must get to the bottom of the book’s apparent curse before she herself is killed.

The most exceptional aspect of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is its chillingly accurate portrayal of the ghoulish characters from Schwartz’s books. Any fan of Gammell’s artwork can rejoice in knowing that the design team of this film went to great lengths to make the appearance of these boogeymen unnervingly exact. Better yet, these fiendish foes are graced with some exceptionally nice-looking cinematography that sets the mood for their tales to unfurl perfectly. The haunted house is well-conceptualized, serving as a befitting backdrop for some of the film’s most frightening moments, and when it comes to life through flashbacks of its past, it has a rich, elegant air that adds ambiance to the story. It is clear the biggest priority of this film was its overall look, and it was accomplished with reverence and creativity.

Another success of this film is its ability to be suspenseful and frightening without the use of explicit gore. For a PG-13 film, it knows how to scare the hell out of an audience and leave them on the edge of their seats. The pacing of the scare scenes is the stuff of nightmares, knowing when the tension should culminate to reap the utmost reward. Body horror and good old-fashioned specters aplenty will make the audience cringe, laugh nervously, and startle more than many blood-spattered horror films have been able to, which is a particularly impressive feat for a film based on simple children’s campfire stories. The violence in the film is mostly implicit, and it knows precisely what to show and what to leave to the imagination in a tasteful display of director André Øvredal’s artistry.

The only problem especially noteworthy was its portrayal of the teenage protagonists. While the young actors are all adept, the characters they played were mostly forgettable. Stella has a bit of dimension and backstory to her, but for the most part, the other teens play flat, disinteresting characters solely present to either serve as victims or to flesh out Stella’s story. Even more problematic is that some of these said victims don’t “earn” their imminent demise. It’s one thing to see a high school bully get his come-uppance, but in the context of this film, it felt a bit odd to see a teen who has done no apparent wrong become a victim. In terms of youth in horror, there is traditionally a sense that if they are murdered, then it is because they are being punished for misbehaving, which can feel darkly satisfying, but in this film, it’s a mixed bag. Some of the victims are outwardly bad, some are questionable in terms of moral standing, and most have done nothing discernibly wrong to deserve “punishment.” Nevertheless, the film works for the most part, and there is enough done correctly here to overlook its flaws.

In a world rife with pretentious, heavy horror films nowadays, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a breath of fresh air. It is fun, clever eye candy for horror fans that don’t take themselves too seriously, and an especially good time for those familiar with the book series. Halloween came early this year, and there’s enough tricks and treats in this film to keep audiences entertained.

-Andrea Riley