There’s some scary stuff going on in there and many of the stories would be well known as urban myths even by those who haven’t read them. I certainly recognised a lot of them as stories we told each other as kids, years before Schwartz pulled them together in one place and that’s kind of his point. With the scary stories series, he’s as much anthropologist as he is author offering us a range of terrifying tales complete with references to their sources, backgrounds to other versions of them and, on occasions, instructions to the reader as to how best to tell the story to others for maximum scary effect. The parental backlash that led to them becoming banned by the American Library Association throughout the nineties failed to take this academic aspect into account; that all three volumes allowed young readers not only be scared, but to understand how important a part of world history and culture the sharing of scary stories is. Admittedly, the scare-factor of the stories is dialled up to eleven by the use of some masterfully scary artwork and illustrations by reclusive artist, Stephen Gammell and, for many fans, it’s these illustrations as much as the stories themselves that make the works so indelible in their memories.
All of this detail and more is chronicled in first-time documentary filmmaker Cody Meirick’s SCARY STORIES - a scattergun examination of the books, their author, his relationship with his son, the campaign by parents to keep the books away from younger readers, the resistance to the bans by school librarians, the influence of the books on other writers in the horror-for-young-readers genre, the outcry when new editions of the books used a different artist from the original illustrator and the lasting impact of the stories and illustrations on those readers who are now adults and, in some cases, seeing their own kids reading them. It’s a big ask to cover all this territory in 84 minutes and it’s where the film is both successful and unsuccessful in equal parts.
The biggest issue for me is that it seems like Meirick is so attached to all the tangents that radiate from the source material that he’s unable to provide us with a focused point of view for what he has to say and this is exacerbated by an editing style that continually cuts back and forth between these different tangents so that we lose track of how each aspect of the material unfolds. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good material here but it’s so interrupted that it never gets the chance to fully develop its narrative arcs.
The film is at its strongest in those sequences where Schwartz’s son, Peter, is reflecting on his relationship with his dad. This is moving and painful stuff that, whilst not being about the books themselves, reveals much about a father-son relationship gone wrong and the regret that lingers when the things that should be said are not said before it’s too late. But this isn’t really what the film purports to be about. It’s almost like it could have been the subject of its own documentary. When the subject matter does come back to the books themselves and the controversy surrounding them, Meirick uses the stylistic device of bringing the Gammell illustrations to life through excellent animations (hats off to animator Shane Hunt) but these comprise only a small part of the overall film, and the remainder feels poorer for their absence. And for every fascinating and insightful interview with the likes of the mother who led the campaign against the books, or the librarian that stood up to the School Board that wanted to ban them, or the perspectives of fellow authors like R.L. Stine, there are another one or two that say very little or gush with fanboy adoration and probably should have been left on the cutting room floor.
There’s a really terrific forty-minute doco hiding inside this film, but as a whole it’s let down by too much ‘filler’ and repetition and poorly executed ‘dramatisations’ of the stories being read to not-quite-convincingly scared kids. It’s timely, though, with André Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro’s movie adaptation of the first book due out later this year, so maybe a quick squiz with the thumb assiduously hovering over the fast-forward button would not go astray.