Humanity lives in narrative. Telling stories is an essential part of everyday life, something that brings our life meaning and solidity. Each story is colored by the perceptions of both the narrator and the listener, and no matter how outrageous, each story contains at least a portion of truth and prophecy. But what happens when you are no longer in control of your own story? What happens when someone tells you…Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
It’s Halloween night on 1968. The United States is embroiled in the war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon is on the verge of being elected president. Unrest is felt even in the small town of Mill Valley where horror-loving teenager Stella (Zoe Coletti) and her friends come upon a strange book of scary stories hidden in an abandoned house. Once she takes the book home, Stella finds out that the stories within are still being written, that they feature her friends, and that nobody gets a happy ending.
Alvin Schwarz’ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series of books are notorious among both the target demographic of young readers and their parents. Schwarz’ stories borrowed from folklore, literature, and urban legend to spin short tales that were perhaps a bit too digestible for young minds, cutting right to the emotional heart of the fear inside. When paired with Stephen Gammell’s nightmare fuel illustrations, they became one of the most memorable — and most challenged — book series of the last few decades. The film version tries its best to mimic the tone and scope of Schwarz’ books and mostly succeeds, even when it spins those stories through a new, occasionally awkward style.
Instead of an anthology film, which would be the default assumption for a movie based on a collection of unrelated stories, we have here a narrative built around them. The stories from the original series are the stories in the book that Stella finds, which appear to be only fiction until they start coming true in horrible ways. There’s a bit of tapping on the fourth wall (tap…tap…tap…) that gives the book itself an odd bit of consciousness, which is in and of itself a little bit frightening to contemplate. There’s hints of the cursed videotape from The Ring in the book, another piece of storytelling medium with a dark history and even darker puzzle to solve.
But turning the stories into set pieces and weaving them together with a narrative does fundamentally alter their trajectory and impact. Schwarz’ stories are all emotion and no reason; it’s just the fear without the context to soften it. The film’s narrative in that sense can feel a bit arbitrary and even limiting, although director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toto do their best to maintain the sense of irrational horror the books are known for, and they maintain a strong respect to presenting the stories as they’re best known. It’s a dedication that never comes off as anything less than passionate.
And Øvredal knows how to film a frightening scenario. While he’s blunted by the film’s PG-13 rating, and few of the scenes come off as jump-worthy, they are routinely unsettling and insidious with the images creeping inside the brain to lurk and grow. The most effective of these sees a character trapped in a series of red hallways, slowly stalked by a monstrous, pale woman with dark eyes and hair lifted directly from one of Grammel’s original illustrations. The panic slowly rises, the fear slinks through the screen, and you can’t help but feel your heart beat a little faster. There’s a distinct sense of immediacy helped by a point-of-view framing that makes the scene crackle with dark energy.
What helps keep that you-are-there vibe going in-between the scary story moments, however, is a cast of uniformly gifted young actors who bring genuine spark into their characters. Unlike some horror films that are full of boring, pretty people that you can’t wait to see get offed, the characters in Scary Stories seem more complex and fleshed-out, more real and solid. They seem like people we know. They even at times seem like they could be us. When they start getting attacked by supernatural forces, it feels like we’re right there with them.
It’s the opening scenes that help establish this connection in an extended sequence set to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” In quick strokes, we get to see brief glimpses into the lives of Stella and her friends, efficiently demonstrating their personalities in ways that never feeling forced or inorganic. When August (Gabriel Rush) insists that his Halloween costume is not a clown but a Pierrot, it tells us volumes about him in one sentence. That there’s even a reference to a Pierrot in the film at all also indicates the level of detail that went into the making of the movie, to be honest.
It helps that each of the young actors here gives a solid performance, especially Zoe Colletti, who plays Stella as a resourceful genre nerd so effortlessly, and Austin Zajur as Stella’s goofy-charming prankster friend Chuck. Colletti, Rush, and Zajur have such an easy chemistry with each other that when Michael Garza’s mysterious drifter Ramon enters into their little clique, he slides in without disrupting the connection in any way. The adults in the film don’t come off nearly as well with the exception of a surprisingly warm Dean Norris as Stella’s father, who really makes his small amount of screen time stand out thanks to his excellent rapport with Colletti.
What does sometimes bring the film down is its insistence on reminding us that it’s set in 1968 right before Nixon’s election. To be fair, that was a genuinely scary time for a lot of young people. You might never know when you or someone you love would get called into a chaotic war where you could die or go missing. That’s a fantastic parallel to make to the horror of the original stories, which implied that anyone could vanish or be taken at any time. But the film never does as much with it as it should. It has a good idea and a good start to exploring it, but it rarely goes as deep as it needs to to really be effective. The film is honestly better when it focuses just on the horrors of the supernatural and not the real world; it’s a real all-or-nothing proposition.
That put aside, Scary Stories is a surprisingly effective and affecting exploration of a shared horror experience. It has a strong sense of fun, even during it’s most harrowing moments. It thrives on the power of storytelling as manifestation, on the idea that once we’ve told a story it’s at least partially true. Like the stories that inspired it, it draws upon tales told over generations and traditions, giving them a sense of uncanny familiarity that almost feels like memory. It’s a highly accessible and highly enjoyable horror film that might not strike as hard as it could, but it makes up for it with a high level of craftsmanship, dedication, and heart.
A tense, rapidly-beating heart…
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B