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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Hey, gentle readers! I know it’s been a while, but I’ve been hard at work producing the latest iteration of my “From the Ruby Lounge” live theatre passion project. And now that it’s opened (To oversold crowds, I should add!), I can finally get caught up on what’s been hitting multiplexes.

Luckily for me, it’s been a rather anemic August. We’ve had some noteworthy releases, sure, but it became pretty much immediately obvious that precious few we’re worth the time and trouble of reviewing. Tell me, have I just been lost in my live theatre bubble or did anyone really care that Hobbs and Shaw came and went?

But then we have Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, an adaptation of a beloved book series by Alvin Schwartz, godfathered by producer/story writer Guillermo del Toro. While I’m probably the only one of my generation who didn’t have any fond childhood memories of the books (building up a tolerance to scary stories took me a long time), it’s my understanding that the books are exactly what it says on the cover: A collection of short scary stories to tell around a campfire, or maybe with a flashlight held under your face. The stories themselves were modern myths and urban legends pulled from all over the place (many of which are public domain), which I suppose would make Schwartz a kind of modern-day Brothers Grimm.

The screenplay was handled by Dan and Kevin Hageman, both story writers on The Lego Movie, though they’re probably best known for their work on del Toro’s Trollhunters project with Dreamworks Animation on Netflix. We’ve also got Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton as two additional story writers, after penning some of the later Saw films. And pulling it all together is director Andre Ovredal, who previously helmed a foreign indie found-footage gem called Trollhunter (unrelated to the aforementioned Netflix series). And you know a goddamn found footage movie is good if I’m recommending it.

There’s a lot of talent in this creative team. And God knows every last ounce of that talent would be needed to wring a coherent story out of a horror anthology.

Our stage is set in the sleepy little Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley, on Halloween night of 1968. We’re quickly introduced to teenager Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a budding author fascinated with the macabre. She’s out for one last Halloween spree with her childhood friends, the smart-mouthed Chuck Steinberg and the uptight Auggie Hilderbrandt (respectively played by Austin Zajur and Gabriel Rush). Long story short (a Halloween prank and a gang of bullies are involved), our crew crosses paths with Ramon (Michael Garza), a cool and mysterious teenage drifter passing through town.

So what we’ve got here is a supernatural horror mystery drenched in retro nostalgia, starring a crew of teenage misfits. Yeah, this is It: Chapter One. This thing wants to be It: Chapter One, so badly, it fucking hurts. Or maybe it’s trying to be “Stranger Things”? Same difference, I guess.

The point is, every last frame of this movie looks like it could’ve been pulled from either of those two properties. Same color scheme, similar production design, the camera movements and angles look a lot alike, they’re clearly going for the same tone. And I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with that, except that this movie takes place a good two decades prior to its forebears. I’m no historian, but I’m pretty damn sure the ’60s did not look this much like the ’80s.

And to be clear, the ’60s setting is intrinsic to the story. The Vietnam War is prominent in the background, an unsettling parallel for children getting sent off to die in some unknowable hellscape. And without spoiling too much, it makes for some halfway decent thematic material regarding courage and facing fears. But then we have the election of President Nixon, steadily unfolding on TV screens throughout the plot. I can only assume the filmmakers were playing on our knowledge of Nixon’s downfall, with the dreadful rise of a monster playing off the monsters that appear in the actual plot. But of course, the movie is nowhere near political enough for the angle to really work, and so it just kinda sits there.

And given the period setting, of course “Season of the Witch” is heavily featured in the soundtrack. At this point, the song has become such a cliche that it’s lost all meaning. “The Hearse Song” is a far more effective musical motif, a catchy and sinister children’s tune that actually has a basis in the source material.

…Oh, right. The story. I should probably get back to that.

Anyway, our band of teenage misfits are together on Halloween night, so of course they go to the local haunted house. Long story short, this particular mansion was the home of the wealthy Bellows family that more or less built the town about 70 years prior. Their most infamous member was Sarah Bellows, who allegedly murdered scores of local children before she herself died in seclusion and all pictures of her were destroyed. Then the rest of the Bellows family fled the town under mysterious circumstances, and their house has stood empty ever since.

A few Halloween shenanigans later, Stella discovers the journal of Sarah Bellows, containing a wide variety of horrific short stories all written in blood. Soon enough, new stories begin spontaneously writing themselves in the book, featuring our main cast of characters. Thus Stella and her friends have to discover the Bellows family secret before she and all her friends meet their grisly fates.

It’s hard to care about the central mystery when it so obviously exists for the sole purpose of stringing together so many disconnected short stories. And yet the more we learn about Sarah Bellows, the more fascinating she becomes. It’s incredible how the filmmakers elicit sympathy for Sarah, without ever losing sight of the fact that she’s a bona fide monster who’s done terrible things. Seeing Sarah put to rest for the sake of our main cast would be enough, but seeing it done for her own sake as well gives the film that much more emotional heft. It’s a dichotomy that makes the central mystery so compelling, and I can’t imagine anyone but Guillermo del Toro finding that balance so well.

I must also give the film all due credit for so perfectly replicating that “campfire” feel. Have you ever sat around a campfire or huddled in a circle at a sleepover, listening to some kid telling a really scary story in their best spooky voice, conjuring all those waking nightmares in the darkest corners of your childhood imagination? That’s what this movie feels like, pretty much from start to finish. It’s a masterful presentation that does great service to the source material, while also delivering PG-13 scares in ways that are both legitimately PG-13 and legitimately scary!

The unfortunate, unavoidable drawback to this is that the film depends heavily on the campfire storyteller’s most timeless and powerful scare tactic: Jump scares. All of the jump scares. Shit-tons of jump scares. Cheap and obnoxious jump scares as far as the eye can see. Though at least we do get a neat bit of gross-out horror to spice things up — the climax of “Harold” comes to mind, and “The Red Spot” is a delectable work of body horror. We’ve also got the Jangly Man, the Pale Lady, Harold, and other monsters all really cool in concept, even if the CGI on them is uneven at best.

And what of the characters themselves? Well, we’ve got the racist asshole cop (Chief Turner, played by Gil Bellows), we’ve got the vapid blonde teenybopper (Ruthie, played by Natalie Ganzhorn), and we’ve got the bullying douchebag psychopath (Tommy, played by Austin Abrams). This in addition to the aforementioned main cast; comprised of a brave yet bookish lead, the smart-aleck motormouth, the uptight neurotic, and the brooding loner.

These are all stock, paper-thin characters. Again, this was an unavoidable result of cobbling together a plot into which so many disconnected stories could plausibly fit. Of course it certainly doesn’t help that the source material was pretty thin on character development to begin with, the stories themselves are so brief that there isn’t a whole lot of room for the characters to grow, and the film’s nostalgia-drenched sensibilities naturally mean a predilection toward outdated cliches and threadbare character archetypes.

Yet even when the filmmakers try to give these characters some dimension, it doesn’t always work. The best that Chuck, Auggie, and Tommy all get are some shrill one-dimensional parent figures to show us what their life is like at home. Stella herself gets a bit of angst about her runaway mother, but it’s too ham-fisted and inconsequential to work. And then of course we have the whole “they hate us because we’re different angle”, which is sadly far too underdeveloped to register.

On the other hand, Ramon gets a secret backstory that pops beautifully when it’s finally revealed. We’ve also got Dean Norris on hand as Stella’s father, and Norris is such a battle-hardened character actor veteran at this point that he makes the role shine with precious little screen time. As for Stella herself, Zoe Margaret Colletti is no slouch, and her spirited performance is easily strong enough to carry the lead role.

To sum up, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is perfectly serviceable. It’s a teen-centric horror film in the late ’10s, so of course it’s going to look like a “Stranger Things” ripoff. It’s an adaptation of so many disconnected short stories, so of course it’s going to feel disjointed, with thin characters and an even thinner overarching plot. Moreover, the stories themselves were meant to be told over a campfire, so of course the storyteller is going to suddenly shout “BOO!” over and over again, across the umpteen jump scares.

Yet even with all of those inherent limitations and drawbacks, the filmmakers do the best that could’ve been expected from them. The central plot is built around a sweet little ghost story, we’ve got a couple of solid lead performances, the gross-out scares are really cool, and the film as a whole is brimming with heart. And even if the film is an It: Chapter One knockoff, at least it looks like a well-crafted It: Chapter One knockoff, apart from the iffy CGI.

I’m ultimately giving this movie a recommendation, and for one simple reason that I can’t possibly stress enough: It’s a PG-13 horror film that succeeds at being both PG-13 and being scary. That is a rare and beautiful accomplishment and we need to hold onto that.

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