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“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Film Review

If you’ve been keeping up with Shuffle Online lately, you’ll know just how much I was looking forward to the film adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” book series. I watched and reviewed a documentary about the impact of the trilogy and reread the books in anticipation. I’m still not sure why this movie had an August release date instead of an October one, but I’m not complaining; that would’ve been another two months’ wait!

The PG-13 horror movie is set in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in 1968. It follows a high school senior named Stella (Zoe Margaret Coletti) and her two best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). After getting in trouble with the school bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), on the night of Halloween, they meet Ramón (Michael Garza). He’s an out-of-towner who faces his share of racism from Tommy and the town’s police chief (Gil Bellows), but Stella seems to take a liking to him.

Together the group goes exploring at an old abandoned house that’s said to be haunted. Stella recites the legend of the Bellows family, who started the mill that brought the town to life. But they had a dark secret: one of the children, Sarah, was different, so they kept her locked away in a basement room all her life. She was said to tell scary stories to children through the walls — and she was a child-killer.

When the teens stumble across a basement room, they realize that at least part of the myth must be true. Stella, who wants to be a writer, takes Sarah’s book of scary stories home with her. That’s when things start to go wrong.

The rest of the movie shows characters getting picked off one-by-one by Sarah’s stories, as they write themselves into the book in blood. The creatures that come to life from the book are terrifying. That’s due in part to the fact that they’re based on Stephen Gammell’s disturbing artwork from the original Schwartz books.

L-R: Ramón, Harold the Scarecrow and Stella

Harold the scarecrow would be creepy even if he didn’t come to life. At least one of the monsters is played by horror movie favorite Javier Botet (“IT,” “Crimson Peak”), an actor who uses his lanky build and gift for movement often as creepy characters. The Jangly Man — an invention inserted into the “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” story — had maybe the weakest execution because he wasn’t based on a Gammell design, but his unnatural twisting and crawling still sent shivers up my spine.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” has plenty of jump scares, but don’t think that’s all it has going for it. The tension that builds in each kill scene is artful. You can feel your heart pounding as you wait to see what will happen next. The direction by Andre Ovredal is great too, and he uses some really interesting techniques without getting so carried away that you’re taken out of the movie. One shot even reminded me of Leigh Whannell’s visually stunning film “Upgrade.”

Despite the monsters, the scares, the direction and even the acting contributing to the movie’s greatness, it’s not all good. Specifically, the writing had a lot of weak points. Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman wrote the screenplay, with input from producer Guillermo del Toro. But when the protagonist says (with a straight face, in a serious moment), “You don’t read the book. The book reads you,” your script might need more work.

There was some heavy-handedness around the era in which the film was based too. Richard Nixon was constantly in the background (sometimes literally, on TV) and so was the Vietnam War. There was some muddled messaging about draft dodgers, and it sort of feels like the movie was based in 1968 so they could make contemporary political statements without being as overt as possible.

The movie’s narrative and dialogue also had some weird racial politics. We know that many townspeople are suspicious of Ramón because he’s not white — and of course, as an audience, we’re on his side — but there are still several missed opportunities for further commentary on the subject.

When Ramón first walks into Stella’s room and reads her writing, he comments on it: “Sam’s pet is a sewer rat?” So now we know that she wrote “Sam’s New Pet,” an urban legend that’s included in the third book of the “Scary Stories” series. The thing is, Schwartz notes in his bibliography that folklorist Gary Alan Fine “suggests that this legend reflects anger over Mexican workers who entered the United States illegally and competed for jobs held by Americans. The Mexicans are represented by a pet that turns out to be a rat.”

Stephen Gammell’s illustration for “Sam’s New Pet”

Shouldn’t Ramón see right through the metaphor? Wouldn’t he have something more to say to Stella about the story, as a Latino American? And why bring the story into the picture if it doesn’t have bearing on their relationship or Ramón’s identity?

Another baffling choice the writers made was around the Bellows’ servant and her daughter, who were black. Stella, Chuck and Ramón discover old newspapers with headlines claiming that the Bellows family kicked the woman and her daughter out because they thought the servants were teaching Sarah “black magic” or “Voodoo.”

They find the daughter, Lou Lou (Lorraine Toussant), who is now a wise old woman and happens to be blind, fulfilling a few different tropes. The teens ask her if they taught Sarah those things. It’s weird that these characters, who are ostensibly smart, wouldn’t see through what the Bellows did to a poor black woman and her daughter in the late 1800s.

Later in the film, we see a sort of flashback of Lou Lou helping Sarah hide from her abusive family. This young black girl literally gets punished for lying to help a white woman for no other reason than being…pure of heart? It’s another exhausting trope, and it seemed unnecessary to include at all.

Despite the many odd choices made for the narrative, and the decision to end on a note that makes a sequel seem inevitable, this movie accomplished a lot. It was much more mature than one might expect of a PG-13 horror film, with intense scare sequences. This isn’t “Goosebumps,” and most children much younger than 13 would probably be too frightened by it.

If you grew up reading the books, giving them a reread before heading to the theater will probably help your enjoyment of this one. Familiarity with “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is by no means a prerequisite to watching, but it may help you recognize some of the subtler nods to the books.

If you’re looking for a nostalgia-driven horror movie, you should definitely head to the theaters. But if you decide to save this one for rental or streaming, it shouldn’t impact your experience.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is in theatres now!

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