Why SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019) is Actually Scary

I’ve got four grandkids; three girls and boy, ranging in age from 10 to 5. As a person with no children of my own (these come from my husband’s kids), I’m anxious to start sharing my love of pop culture, books, and movies with them. Andre Ovredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an example of why I’ll probably still have to wait a couple years.

A couple Halloweens ago I bought the eldest granddaughter, who’s turning out to be a reader, Alvin Schwartz’s book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Her mom told me she was into creepy things, and dang: when I was a kid those illustrations by Stephen Gammell were really creepy! Their wispiness made them look as if they’d been spun in spider web, but their detail allowed them to leap off the page and into my nightmares. When I saw the preview for the film, I thought, great! Here’s a movie I could take the two eldest girls to, based on a book they’d already be familiar with. But then I saw some more teasers, and thought, well… maybe I should preview this business myself, it looks kind of scary. Ovredal and del Toro definitely did their job with the scary, but the PG-13 rating of this film is misleading, and the film may be too much for my two chickadees, at least for a while.

In this case, PG-13 means no sex, no swearing, and Very Little Blood. But what’s happened here is that the filmmakers have made a viscerally scary movie without any of that (kudos). There are two reasons Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will give your preteens and tweens a complex: the narrative and the effects.

But wait, you say: didn’t you just tell us there was Very Little Blood? Yes, yes I did. But if you’ve seen some of Guillermo del Toro’s other work (I’m thinking specifically of the Pale Man from 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth) you know that he’s committed to practical effects, which definitely don’t have the same artificial qualities as those executed with extensive CGI, and that you don’t need gore to be frightening. The effects in this film are great, and very little is done digitally (you can watch a video on how some of the creatures from the illustrations were translated to the screen here). Modern viewers know when images are “created” using CG, that they don’t actually come from the world; we’re accustomed to seeing both, blended, and being able to tell the difference. So the extensive practical creature effects in Scary Stories lend themselves to a type of realism not always seen in contemporary horror films, which ratchets up the fear factor. Those things EXIST, even if it is just in the world of the film, and the film therefore successfully builds a world the viewer can believe in.

And those creatures do some damage in the narrative, to characters viewers are encouraged to like and identify with. The film’s somewhat slow first act serves to effectively flesh out three teen protagonists without truly delineating a single one as our “main character.” We get the most personal association with Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a social outcast due in part to her fractured family and in other part to her fascination with the macabre; she is the one who sets the events of the film in motion. But her two compadres, Auggie and Chuck (Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur), are no less charming and well-drawn, so it’s kind of a shock WHEN THEY BOTH DIE. Kids’ movies with groups of kids working together to solve a problem aren’t new to us (take a look at classics like The Goonies, Monster Squad, and their grandchildren, like Stranger Things), but losing central characters from that group is something out of Game of Thrones, not a PG-13 horror thriller.

Scary Stories tricks you into thinking it’s going to be like these other antecedents by first doing away with a really terrible character. As in: drunk, sneering, letterman jacket-wearing high school bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams), who might also be abusive to his girlfriend Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) and who spends his free time using a baseball bat to beat up on a scarecrow. It’s pretty satisfying when the scarecrow gets his revenge. Tommy’s demise is surprisingly graphic (it’s really the first bit of horror-movie violence we see in the film) but we’re fine with it: he was an awful person, and we know that horror movies are all about killing off those folks— almost as much as they’re traditionally about eliminating promiscuous female types and black folks. But from here Scary Stories diverges from some of these well-known conventions, capitalizing on the “these kids were all in the same haunted wrong place at the wrong time and are now cursed” trope to the nth degree. Before the final reel, we lose Auggie and Chuck to monsters plucked from the pages of the film’s source material, even as their friends try desperately to save them. There are few “close calls” wherein those efforts are successful, which in turn calls every character’s mortality into question. Anyone, it seems, could be next.

Add to all of this uncertainty in the backdrop to the film’s main storyline: to connect all the stories from the book, the filmmakers create a frame story that takes place in 1968, over the few days between Halloween and the election of Richard Nixon, all set against the larger picture of the Vietnam War. “Killing kids” isn’t just something out of a horror narrative here, it’s happening in real time—one character’s brother has already been shipped back from ‘Nam “in pieces.” The historical context isn’t likely to mean much to young viewers (sadly, I doubt many teens would have this kind of background knowledge about Vietnam), but it certainly adds a bit of weight to the film, and perhaps signals why Ovredal made some of these choices in the first place: young viewers of this film are living the specters of school shootings, cyberbullying, suicide, and climate change crises hanging over them, just as these characters fear being sent overseas to die for reasons they can’t comprehend.

All of this to say: though in the end it’s a quality contribution to horror (though I had some reservations about the ending—it seemed like just so much Hollywood franchise-building), don’t rush to expose younger viewers to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Maybe they have enough horror in their lives already.

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