Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (United States/Canada, 2019)

August 10, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Poster

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the novel by Alvin Schwartz (with illustrations by Stephen Gammell), is three-fourths of a good horror movie and one-fourth disappointing. The film, constructed as a series of episodic vignettes connected by an umbrella story, remains solidly engaging until it gets to the ending. That part of the movie not only unfolds at a considerably less compelling level than the previous material but its sequel preparation causes the movie to fade away on a less-than-satisfying note.

As directed by Trollhunter’s Andre Ovredal from a screenplay co-credited to Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories boasts a superior sense of atmosphere that effectively recreates 1968 without going overboard in its nostalgia-mining. TV news images of LBJ and Nixon defending Vietnam policy are intended to draw parallels to today but political commentary isn’t the film’s forte. A better call-back to the era is the recreation of a Pennsylvania drive-in, where the film’s quartet of protagonists hide out from a bully after their Halloween prank goes a little too right.

Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her two high school (platonic) buddies, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), dress up in costumes – a witch, a clown (sorry, that’s a “pierrot”), and a “spider-man” (not the Spider-Man – that would cause rights issues) – and embark on the annual October 31 ritual of trick-or-treating. For them, however, it’s not about getting candy. It’s about getting payback on Tommy (Austin Abrams), their teenage nemesis, who also happens to be dating Chuck’s older sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). When their scheme, which involves a bag of toilet paper, a bunch of eggs, and a flaming bag of feces, goes awry and Tommy crashes his car, the chase is on. First stop: the aforementioned drive-in, where draft-dodger Ramon (Michael Garza) is minding his own business watching Night of the Living Dead when Stella, Auggie, and Chuck jump into his car. An infatuation-at-first-sight attraction to Stella encourages Ramon to chase off Tommy, but the bully isn’t so easily deterred. He catches up with them at the local haunted house, which is where the narrative really begins.

Inside the crumbling, gothic mansion, Stella recounts its tragic past – how the disfigured daughter of the inhabitants, Sarah Bellows, was kept locked in a dungeon until she was taken away to an asylum, where she died. Now, it’s said, her spirit haunts the big house’s walls and if you hear her voice and ask her to tell you a story, it’s the last story you’ll ever hear. Stella finds Sarah’s book of creepy tales and takes it with her when she and the others escape a trap set by Tommy. One-by-one, everyone who visited the house becomes the subject of new stories that write themselves in red ink on the pages of the book that Stella can’t return or destroy.

The scary stories represent horror shorts and are taken directly from chapters in the source material: “Harold,” “The Big Toe,” “The Red Spot,” and others. Each plays to Ovredal’s strengths as a director. The cornfield he creates for Harold the Scarecrow’s domain is both interesting and unique (and far more ominous than the one in the hideously bad movie version of Children of the Corn). He makes excellent use of colors (especially red) and shadows and doesn’t rely too much on jump-scares (although there are a couple of those). Most of the movie works a lot better than the average PG-13 scare-fest.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t merely fail to stick the ending, it flubs it entirely. Is that all there is? Really? For a moment, about ten minutes before the end credits began, I thought Scary Stories was going to go in a really dark, Jacob’s Ladder kind of direction – something daring, nihilistic, and clever. The movie hints at it (note the scene with the eyeglasses) but never quite goes there. It chickens out. When I realized that it was opting for the safer conclusion, I felt deflated. Those who don’t like movies with depressing endings may applaud Scary Stories’ decision but I wish it hadn’t teased something much more audacious.

It’s fair to argue that Scary Stories deserves accolades because it bucks the usual horror movie trends by giving us all the clichés while managing not to seem clichéd. The genre tropes are all alive and well and Scary Stories delivers them with élan but the dispiriting ending hangs over everything like a pall. Still, putting aside the final fifteen minutes, Ovredal gives us an engaging batch of campfire stories told from a fresh perspective, and that’s worth something in the stale world of PG-13 horror.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (United States/Canada, 2019)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2019-08-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Scary Images, Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1