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New on VOD: “Scary Stories” Review

“Scary Stories” is a new documentary feature about the book series “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz. It’s directed by Cody Meirick and features interviews with more than 40 people. Watch the trailer below:

Among the interviewees are members of Schwartz’s family (his wife, son and daughter); fellow children’s horror author R.L. Stine; and a collection of eclectic writers, artists, professors, historians and more. Those who are part of the documentary each had a connection to the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” book series — including Sandy Vrabel, a member of the PTA, and Miriam Downey, a librarian.

If you’re unaware of the impact these books had in the 1980s and 1990s, let’s just say it was big. There was a lot of controversy over whether or not the books were “appropriate” for elementary school children, the exact demographic for which they were written. It often involved parents, teachers, librarians and school boards.

Author R.L. Stine in “Scary Stories”

This documentary explores that controversy and points out that they made the banned books list in some places (along with R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”). This is perhaps the most interesting story being told in “Scary Stories,” a film that goes in multiple directions.

While the actual stories in Schwartz’s books were sometimes deemed too mature for younger children, another big issue most parents had were the illustrations. Stephen Gammell’s famous — or infamous, depending on who you ask — drawings are creepy and gory and visceral. Later releases didn’t use his artwork, but there was an uproar from those who grew up with it, because “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” just isn’t the same without Gammell.

“Scary Stories” movie poster

The documentary’s style changes just as often as the story it’s trying to tell. There isn’t any narration. Most of the interviews take place in “scary” places: a cemetery, an abandoned building, overgrown industrial parks. That could have been an interesting aspect, but I didn’t notice it until more than halfway through the film. That may have been because they needed to shoot in daylight, but it just felt like it was a great idea that wasn’t used to great effect.

There are also sections of animated storytelling, which worked better than the interview locations in terms of visual interest. The one completely baffling choice is a series of scenes that cut in during the third act: A woman is reading the “Scary Stories” to two young girls. There isn’t really a point to these scenes, and there isn’t much to see, so it probably would have been better to leave it out altogether.

What “Scary Stories” doesn’t lack is passion. It’s the best part of the documentary — and not just on behalf of the filmmakers. The cast of people being interviewed have such strong feelings and opinions on Schwartz’s books, and it’s fascinating to see how these books affected lives. One woman has multiple tattoos of Gammell’s artwork from the series. There is a woman who studies folklore and discusses the relationships between classic folk tales and Schwartz’s stories.

Woman getting Stephen Gammell-style tattoo in “Scary Stories”

If you loved the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” trilogy as a kid, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here — and you’ll probably learn some new things too. The timing couldn’t be better either: It’s available on VOD May 7, and will be released on DVD July 16. Watch this (and maybe even revisit the books) before you see the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” feature film in August.

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