Alvin Schwartz’s collection of short horror stories for kids gets a big-screen adaptation with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Ovredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro.
The original three books gathered together stories from folklore and urban legend; Schwartz put his own spin on them, and even instructed readers on how to scare friends while reading them aloud. They were quite short, sometimes grisly and had no connecting thread. They managed to make their way into campfire stories in the 1980s; I distinctly remember somebody getting me with “The Big Toe” one summer’s eve.
Rather than do an anthology movie, like a Creepshow for kids, Ovredal and del Toro opt for a framing device that is a direct nod—one could also call it a rip-off—of Stranger Things/Stephen King’s It-style nostalgia involving plucky kids dealing with various horrors. The resulting film feels derivative, disconnected and boring, after a bunch of decent ideas are crammed into a storyline that just doesn’t work.
The gimmick trying to hold everything together is the story of Sarah Bellows (not a character in the books), an abused, long-deceased girl whose journal of stories is discovered by the aforementioned plucky teens, led by Stella (Zoe Colletti), in 1968. Others in the group include Auggie, the slightly intellectual guy (Gabriel Rush); Chuck, the goofy guy (Austin Zajur); and Ramón, the mysterious newbie (Michael Garza). All the group really needs is a young, quiet girl with a short haircut and an affinity for Eggos, and the Stranger Things circuit would be complete.
Is it scary? A little, at times. Harold the scarecrow is re-created quite nicely from the original drawings by Stephen Gammell in Schwartz’s book. He has a creepy human quality to him, and when he starts walking around, it’s freaky. Unfortunately, as was the case in the book, Harold’s appearance is very short.
“The Red Spot”—the spider-eggs-in-your-face story that appeared in the book after the infamous Bubble Yum spider eggs urban legend of the late 1970s—finds its way in as an ugly bathroom-mirror experience. Most effectively, a variation on “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker!” called the Jangly Man, featuring a severed head, makes an extended appearance, as does the Pale Lady (once again impeccably re-created from the drawings) from “The Dream.”
You can’t have a Stranger Things/It rip-off without the school bully. That’s Tommy (Austin Abrams), a school athlete with a baseball bat, à la Negan from The Walking Dead, who is quite pissed about the flaming paper bag full of shit that landed on his lap while driving. His pursuit for revenge leads to a drive-in where Night of the Living Dead is playing. (Romero’s zombie classic actually came out in the year in which this movie is set.) Tommy’s fate is a predictable, as is his presence in the film.
Good visuals, decent acting and some solid scares don’t result in a solid horror film. Of course, I’m not the demographic for this one, although I did have the pleasure of reading the books when they first came out, so I wasn’t completely uninitiated. The choice to tie together everything with a hackneyed storyline rather than go the anthology route was a bad one. Too much of the movie feels forced rather than free-flowing.
As with any horror movie, you know you are relatively safe from hardcore frights if the movie is PG-13. It was R-rated, and Stranger Things feels like an R; there’s always that element of unease when you know you are watching something R-rated. Scary Stories, in comparison, feels a little wimpy. Yes, I know it was made for kids, so this is just a warning for hardcore horror fans: It’s pretty tame.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t a complete loss. It’s a success on the art direction/production design side, and I’m glad a movie exists that has brought Harold to life. But other than Harold and a few other visual treats, the movie feels like a giant missed opportunity.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is now playing at theaters across the valley.