Back in 1981 Alvin Schwartz released the first volume of his Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. Aimed at introducing children and teens to the nightmare world of folk horror. His books not only proving a huge success, but also inspiring a whole generation of horror fans. With tales of mysterious creatures, ghosts and things that go bump in the night. Equally inspiring later anthologies of children’s horror such as R.L Stine’s Goosebumps series.
The journey from books to film has therefore taken a long and surprising amount of time. Especially when considering the cultural impact of his books in defining folk horror for a whole generation. And with the visionary Guillermo del Toro sitting in the producers chair. Hopes were extremely high for the first film outing.
Unlike the recent film adaptations of Goosebumps, Scary Movies to Tell in the Dark opts for teenage/adult film territory. Shaking off the children’s entertainment label in favour of the folk horror at the heart of Schwartz’ work. However, this also creates a dilemma in bringing the books to the screen. By attempting to find a 15+ audience that identifies with the source material of childhood fears and campfire stories. While in turn risking the alienation of the core younger teenagers. In favour of older cinema audiences far more used to gore driven, shock horror.
Coupled with this is the challenge of dovetailing a set of short stories. Each designed to exist in their own unique world, with an overarching story that joins the dots. And it is here that Scary Movies to Tell in the Dark struggles shine. Never quite managing to match the individual stories, with a larger engaging cinematic journey.
Set in the fictional town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1968. Stella (Zoe Colletti), and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), are outsiders in a small town culture of football and cars. Their social and school lives haunted the town bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) and his gang. And while the traditional trick or treat celebrations of Halloween get under way. The group find themselves upsetting the very people they fear.
However, as they run for safety from Tommy and his goons. The group find themselves inadvertently rescued a mysterious young drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza). Finding safety in the local derelict haunted house. However, their safety is short lived as Stella discovers a book of stories written in blood. A book believed to have been owned by the mysterious and reclusive Sarah Bellows. With none of the group prepared for the door ways the book is about to open on their deepest nightmares.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is visually delightful, bathing its audience in the autumnal colour of Halloween. While mixing the gold and brown of Autumn with the stark red and blue of a nightmare world. Equally impressive are the short but sweet living nightmares conjured from the haunted book. With each short story playing with the interface between childhood fear and folklore in its creation.
While performances are also solid and engaging. As the teenagers are swept into a world of supernatural horror. However, despite strengths, Scary Stories fails to ignite, ultimately offering an entertaining but instantly forgettable cinematic experience.
Much of the fault for this failure lays with its loose overarching story. One that that while joining up the shorter folklore tales. Fails to create any real audience attachment to the characters on screen. While also never allowing the young cast to fully develop their roles and place in a broader story arc.
Equally where the film try’s to incorporate historical or social themes it fails. Skirting around the 1968 Nixon election and Vietnam while never providing us with nay clear messages on its reasons. While its commentary on the changing American town vanishes under redevelopment as quickly as it arrives.
While you went to love Scary Movies to Tell in the Dark. It never really manages to escape the confusion of its plot. And while there is heartfelt reverence for its source material. You are left wondering whether a TV outing would have been preferable honouring the books. Yet despite its flaws it offers glimpses of creativity and brilliance, that provide an enjoyable if forgettable halloween ride.
Director: André Øvredal