What is surprising though, is how cleverly these stories are stitched together within a frame that makes a very good fist of weaving them into an overall, fluid narrative that rarely feels like a contrived or forced spine upon which to hang the tales. That might be due to the influence of Oscar winning horror and supernatural writer/director Guillermo del Toro who gets a story credit along with Saw franchise alumni members Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Add to that, a screenplay by Hotel Transylvania (2012) and The Lego Movie (2014) writers Dan and Kevin Hageman and you’ve got a great stew of talents stirring in the scary stuff with the funny stuff.
The story this team comes up with is a bit of a classic teen trope-fest about a bunch of kids in a small town in 1968. Aspiring writer, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) reluctantly agrees to join her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) for what might be their last Hallowe’en tick or treat. Along the way, they encounter Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) who’s on a date with school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). The kids play a prank on Tommy which backfires and he chases them into the local drive-in (check out George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead up on the screen). Here they meet Ramón (Michael Garza), a secretive, out-of-town kid just passing through. Before long all of them end up at the local haunted house where we learn the tale of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) whose family locked her away in the basement where she spent her time writing scary stories. And, of course, Stella finds Sarah’s book and brings the legend back to life. Suddenly, a new batch of scary stories are writing themselves (in blood!) and each one’s climax involves the death of a teenager. It’s these stories, the ones Sarah’s ghost is writing in the book, that are taken from Alvin Schwarz’s first collection.
Setting the story in 1968 gives us more than just an excuse for a great visual look, thanks to Production Designer David Brisbin. It takes us back to a time where there was less paranoia about teenagers running loose around town as well as a time before mobile phones, allowing for a tasty combination of freedom and isolation that helps build the suspense and tension. But it also allows us to watch the progress of Richard Nixon’s ascension to the Whitehouse (on television screens in the background of several scenes)... it’s a reminder that bad things really are happening in this world and not all of them are imaginary.
Director André Øvredal - Trollhunter (2010) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) –steers a confident course through these stories of a vengeful scarecrow, a dismembered corpse, the VERY unsettling pale lady and more. At the same time he keeps his eye on the ball with the overarching story so that one never suffers at the hands of the other. More importantly, this isn’t cheap horror. Yes there are a few soundtrack assisted jump-scares, but for the most part this film manages to get our skin crawling and our spines tingling by being super-creepy rather than gory and terrifying. The result is much more satisfying than that average schlock-horror flick. Øvredal is helped by a great cast of young actors who hold their own in a world where, thanks to works like IT parts 1 and 2 and Stranger Things seasons 1 to3, we’re oversupplied by bands of nostalgic teenagers battling supernatural forces. The popularity of those that came before could well have cruelled the pitch for this newcomer, but (for me, at least) there’s a freshness and a likability to Stella, Auggie, Chuck and Ramón that was compelling from start to finish.
Projects like this are a big ask. When you’re working with source material that is well-known and much loved by its readership, there’s a lot of pressure not to screw up the representations of characters that have lived in millions of imaginations for a long, long time. Simultaneously, the producers want to attract new audiences who come fresh to the cinema with no expectations of how the stories or the characters will be rendered. Marvel and DC both know this, as do the makers of the Goosebumps movies. It’s the latter two-movie franchise that this film most aligns with and, on balance, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK delivers us a better, more satisfying and more entertaining result.
My one disappointment is that artist Stephen Gammell’s excellent original artwork for the Alvin Schwartz stories doesn’t get a credit, even though his images for creatures like Harold the Scarecrow, the Jangly Man, the Pale Lady and others are so faithfully recreated here. Actually, on the subject of giving credit where credit is due, it was my teenage son who pointed this out to me. In his opinion, the stories are only as powerful as they are because of Gammell’s illustrations, and when the scary characters appear on the screen, it’s clear that the filmmakers agree.
At the end of this movie, there’s a nice little coda that not only leaves the door open for a sequel, it begs for one. Often I find these commercial on-selling strategies detract from the enjoyment of the movie at exactly the moment where they want to send me out feeling good about it. That’s not the case here. I can’t wait for the next one. And with two more volumes of scary stories to plunder, why wouldn’t you plan for a franchise?