For the better part of a decade, The Conjuring films have convinced a new generation that the ‘70s were the spookiest period of the 20th century. But with the arrival of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a strong case is being made for the era before that—back when Nixon was first elected to the White House and the most nightmarish thing might’ve been how so few seemed to mind sending their youth to die by the thousands in Southeast Asia.
Leaning heavily into its 1968 setting, Scary Stories coyly dips its toe into a nostalgic stew of simpler times while also implicitly embracing the true horror of that America in a way even Quentin Tarantino turns a blind eye to. And in doing so, it resurrects a world where horror fanatics like producer Guillermo del Toro could be lost in a fantasia of bedroom walls that include Christopher Lee’s grim countenance on a poster here, and figurines of creatures from black lagoons there. This is, in fact, exactly the world we’re introduced to during an opening montage edited to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”
For this is the horror refuge of Stella’s bedroom and a promise of the kind of old-fashioned scares to come. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a lonely girl, even though she is surrounded by friends. It comes with the territory after her mother abandoned her and the father. Still, Halloween is like Christmas for the teenager and best buddies Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush), who love horror almost as much as they do getting revenge on bullies. It’s while running from the latter that they and a new recruit, a Hispanic loner from out of town named Ramón (Michael Garza), decide to hide out in a haunted house.
Like every small town, their community is bedeviled by a ghost story and the decrepit home that goes with it. The local legend suggests a woman named Sarah Bellows hanged herself in there at the turn of the century after being accused of killing children. But all she definitely did was read them stories, stories she’s accused of writing in blood. And sure enough, there is a book in the house with tall tales penned in a crimson hue. But what’s creepier than the ancient text is how, after Stella takes this book home, it starts writing new stories all by itself. Stories that come true.
One by one, each of Stella’s friends and foes disappear, dispatched by ghoulish monsters that mirror what’s in the text. And if she doesn’t figure out an end to this yarn, eventually there will be no one left to tell her tale.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on a collection of children’s books written by Alvin Schwartz in the 1980s. A little before my time, I never actually read these books, although I understand they had the same effect on kids then as Goosebumps did for me. What will please moviegoers though, old and especially young, is how wicked Scary Stories is as a film. Unlike the recent Goosebumps adaptations which erred on the side of goofy and PG, Scary Stories is decidedly PG-13 and basks in a depravity that might be soft for gorehounds but is the perfect gateway horror for a younger generation.
Produced by del Toro and based on a story he came up with, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is directed by a genuine horror filmmaker, André Øvredal (Trollhunter), and has a tactile ickiness. The setting allows this to return to the kind of more imaginative horror flicks that dominated drive-ins before slasher movies took over in the 1980s, and most of the monstrous set-pieces, where inexplicable creatures come to life and stalk these teenagers one-by-one, are superbly designed. For instance, Chuck’s image-conscious sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) has a devilish prosthetic effect when, before her big night in a high school play, a pimple grows to a grotesque size and starts sprouting spiders; even more effective is how one of the kids who is the most insecure about intimacy with a parent is confronted by a giant monstrous figure that only wants a hug. And every direction he turns, she (or it) is getting closer.
The creature designs and inventiveness of the attacks harken back to some of del Toro’s own work in horror and a general appreciation for B-creature features. These are the aspects that will make Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a cult classic for a specific audience, albeit the repetition of those old B-horror movies’ wooden storytelling might hinder this from reaching a larger audience. Indeed, the screenplay by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman is fairly boilerplate and draws too much on the slasher genre its story predates. After a strong prologue that introduces all of these kids as an interesting assortment of outcasts stumbling into a haunted house, the film quickly devolves into A Nightmare on Elm Street aesthetic where one by one they’re taken out, and thus Stella and the audience are forced to twiddle their thumbs until the next “story” is written.
The film also makes very pointed parallels between Richard Nixon’s ’68 election and today, and raises some interesting ideas about the specter of the Vietnam War over young peoples’ lives—as well as the still prevalent everyday racism someone like Ramón would face. Presumably the war is why the film is set when it is as opposed to, say, the late 1970s or ‘80s, which also had kids obsessed with Universal Monsters and a lack of cell phones. Yet this film seems uninterested or unwilling to explore the demons it opens with its Pandora Box and say anything bordering on substantial about the old sacrificing its youth, or even that moment where a generation lost its innocence.
The movie attempts to be meatier and scarier than it is, yet in the end it might’ve been best to just stick with what it ultimately knows how to do: tell stories of poor little souls unable to write their own futures. That and feature some gnarly monster designs that will give the youngest audience members nightmares and a new passion for the macabre. That might not be epic prose, but it makes for a pleasant enough campfire yarn in the dark.
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