A Movie That Plays as a Faithful Adaptation and Not Much More
DIRECTED BY ANDRE OVREDAL/2019
If you would have asked me before the movie if I had read the book(s) of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I would have said yes, but the yes would have been drawn out and high-pitched and I would have shrugged my shoulders and looked at you to help me with the answer.
In other words, I think I have but may be easily mistaking it for something else.
It’s definitely a property in the zeitgeist of my consciousness, and most everyone familiar with the horror genre, but going in, I had no idea if this was a kid’s movie, an anthology or a run-of-mill horror movie (which in itself isn’t a bad thing).
I spent the whole movie grasping for something more that is being said. Anything to lift it above a slightly above-average horror movie.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is kind of all of those things. It feels like a bunch of individual stories, because it literally is. Stories being written in a blank book in red. And each story has it’s own arc, but the movie is technically not an anthology. It just has the flare of one.
In a small-town in Pennsylvania, on Halloween in 1968, a group of school-kids, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and a kid they befriend at a drive-in playing Night of the Living Dead, the movie that plays in all horror movies because it’s public domain and you don’t need to pay for rights, Ramon (Michael Garza), are running from a group of greaser bullies that leads them into a supposedly haunted house. They eventually escape the house, but on the way out, Stella take a dusty old diary with her. Out of curiosity. The same dumb curiosity that always gets things moving forward in horror movies.
Once home, she sees the aforementioned stories being written in the diary, but she recognizes the names. The names of people she knows. And she realizes that the terrible things being written about them in the book are happening to them in real life.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a very competent and efficient film, but ultimately fleeting from the mind. I have barely thought about it in the twenty-four hours since I have seen it. Which comes as little surprise, as it was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal, the director of Trollhunter (2010), one of the most overrated and meaningless horror movies I’ve ever seen. A movie that made me learn to take internet hype with large doses of salt. Scary Stories was also produced and co-written by Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker who makes occasional masterpieces and then complete fluff in between.
I spent the whole movie grasping for something more that is being said. Anything to lift it above a slightly above-average horror movie. Is this movie about the love of books, of writing, of stories? I suppose, if you celebrate that love by crediting it to killing children. Ramon faces racism from the small-town sheriff. Is this movie making some commentary on race? The film keeps showing a TV playing the results of the 1968 Presidential election, so is this movie about that election? Ramon is a draft-dodger. Nixon is an instigator in the Vietman war. Is there something being said about kids paying the crimes of the bad decisions the adults make? (And before you say I’m reading way too much into a horror movie made for kids, then why the hell is a horror movie made for kids showing a closeup of a TV announcing election results four different times?)
Which begs the question, is this movie for kids? For teens? It’s PG-13 and feels like it is, but also has occasional body horror gruesomeness and necks being snapped and broken.
So in the end, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is what it is. A movie that may hit with teenagers and I completely missed the point of. I can see it’s a decently-made movie, even though I’ll contend that CGI will NEVER be scary. Not that you can’t use CGI and make a great horror movie, but it has to mean something more and have quality pulled from other places. If your CGI horror movie is just about the scares, and that’s the whole point of the movie, then don’t blame the audience if they’ve completely forgotten about it the next day.