Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Movie Information

Chris Maiorana and Cameron Allison discuss the new horror film based on the beloved children's books.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush
Rated: PG-13

Chris Maiorana: So, Cameron, it would be too easy to say this movie wasn’t what I was expecting. It may be more accurate to say it wasn’t the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark adaptation I wanted. But it was still effectively creepy and definitely something I’ll consider watching again around Halloween time.

Cameron Allison: I agree. I had a few expectations going in that were met, but I wish I had been wrong about one or two. I think having a story about a group of teens who find a haunted book belonging to a dead girl from the 1800s that ends up picking them off one by one serves up a good bit of fun at times. It was surprisingly creepy despite my gripes, which I’ll get into later. I had trouble falling asleep after our viewing because some of the creatures and stories were burned into my memory — and will probably stay there for a while.

CM: Talk about nightmare fuel! I think the success of the monsters in this flick has a lot to do with the source material. The haunting illustrations of Stephen Gammell, which made the books so memorable, proves to be a guiding force that finds its way onto the screen. But as Joe Bob Briggs would say, there was too much plot getting in the way of the story, or, in this case, stories. After our viewing, we talked about the Vietnam-era backdrop this movie chose for its dramatic pivot point and tried to figure out why it was chosen. After taking some time to digest, I’m still flummoxed. What the hell was the word “wetback” doing in a movie based on a series of scary children’s stories?

CA: The time period choice still makes no sense to me. Other than to set up a line of antagonistic actions for one of the characters, I couldn’t find any reason for the 1968 setting. I agree with you — the hateful language really has no place in this film, especially given its PG-13 rating. I think it’s a perfect example of plot getting in the way of where the true terror should lie: in Alvin Schwartz’s stories.

After our viewing, you showed me some of the illustrations from the books since I have no childhood experience with them, as you do. The pictures are absolutely terrifying, and luckily nobody was in the theater afterward because I was so scared that I accidentally swore! I think the film does a decent job of translating a few of the images, such as Harold the scarecrow, but others, like the spider shot, I feel are lightly seasoned portions in a dish that’s expected to be packed with flavor. Not to say they aren’t effective — many shots were brutal on my psyche — but the pictures you showed me were much harsher. I can’t speak on how faithful the stories are to the source material, but I do agree that the main plot gets in the way of the effectiveness of their execution. Focusing on how to tie everything back to the main plot instead of allowing each story to be self-contained hurts Scary Stories in some areas.

CM: Harold the scarecrow is pure schlock, and I loved it. That story — though I hesitate to call them “stories” because they never really feel like their own units, more like extensions of the main plot — is the best executed, I think, because it goes along nicely with the Halloween theme, autumn leaves and trick-or-treating scenes. With regard to the Chicano character and the racial tension that follows, it’s not so much the hateful language that feels off to me, but rather how that whole digression doesn’t seem to have any aesthetic or logical reason for being there. The stories that Schwartz compiled for the books come from a combination of oral tradition, myths and urban legends. With so much rich culture built in, it makes you wonder why the makers of this movie settled for mundane teen drama and (rather cheaply, I’d say) using the specter of racism as a lazy shorthand for creating villains.

CA: The mundane teen drama is what lost me overall. If this were an anthology, I feel it may have been more effective.

CM: Yes, the anthology format still has some life in it and probably would have served the movie well,  though I suspect the people behind this incarnation of Scary Stories might have some laborious sequels planned — or, at least, they left that window open. We shall see. I give it three stars.

CA: Oh yes, the potential sequel. I feel conflicted about this part. The ending leaves room for one, like many films these days, and it makes me feel hopeful that I’ll get to see more of the stories play out. At the same time, however, I feel like this could have been one movie if a few narrative decisions were added and some taken away. The ending is not ambiguous, and I found it frustrating and rather cheap. I thoroughly enjoyed parts of Scary Stories, but if they continue with the same formula — which did not fully work for me the first time — I don’t see much hope for me coming back for a second round. I also give it three stars.

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