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 young teens to the nightmare world of folk horror tales. The books were a huge success, mixing folklore with the inbuilt fears of childhood experience. Tales of mysterious creatures, ghosts and things that go bump in the night enthralling a whole generation of children and young teens. Schwartz paved the way for later anthologies of children’s horror within R.L Stine’s Goosebumps series. While providing an open door to horror and fantasy for a whole generation of 1980s and 90s young people.
The journey to film has therefore taken a long and surprising amount of time, considering the success of the book series in defining folk horror for a generation.
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 label in favour of a film that plays to the darkness of the folk horror at the heart of Schwartz work. However, this also creates a dilemma in bringing the books to the screen. Attempting to find an adult and 15+ teenage audience that identifies with the source material of childhood fears and campfire stories. Risking the alienation of the core young teen reader in favour of cinema audiences far more used to gore driven, shock horror. In turn, subverting the very target audience and gateway to horror themes of the original source material.
There is also an additional challenge inherent in taking short stories that exist in their own unique world into an overarching film script. A challenge that Scary Movies to Tell in the Dark struggles to overcome. Never quite reaching the heights of supernatural and folklore horror that the source material so eloquently deserved.
Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter) and produced by Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water). Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman’s screenplay does an admirable job of trying to join up a collection of stories with an overarching theme. But ultimately, ends up bypassing the true horror of the short folklore tales that help the film sing.
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 all outsiders in a small town culture of football, cars and popularity. While taking part in the annual trick or treat night celebrations, their lives on the verge of adult responsibilities and change. Stella, Auggie and Chuck run into the town bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) and his gang. A typical high school jock football player, who defies the rules of the town. As they are chased by the bullies, the group are rescued by a mysterious young drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza). In search of safety from the gang and a halloween adventure they end up at a local haunted house. Stella discovering a book of stories written in blood, believed to have been owned by the mysterious and reclusive Sarah Bellows.
As the true nature of the haunted book becomes clear, each of group experience their own ghostly story based on their childhood fears. The group themselves running against the clock as they try to solve the mystery of the book and its owner, before they suffer its supernatural fate.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is visually delightful, bathing the audience in autumnal colour. Golds mixing with browns, reds and blues in creating scenes that shine in their reflection of Halloween with a dream like quality. Equally its short but sweet scary stories conjured from the haunted book carry charm, and visual creativity. Each short story playing with the interface between childhood fear and folklore in its creation. Reminding the audience of the creature under the bed fears that haunt childhood. As the vivid imagination of the child mixes with the darkest corners of dreams and the unknown.
Performances are also solid from Colletti, Rush, Zajur and Garza. As the teenagers swept into a world of horror and supernatural experience. However, despite this it fails to ignite, offering an entertaining but ultimately forgettable cinematic experience.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Darks main problem comes from its loose overarching story. That while joining up the shorter folklore tales, fails to create any audience attachment to the characters on screen. Never allowing the young cast to fully develop their roles in a broader story arc. Ultimately leading to characters who have little audience empathy or understanding, their fates feeling hollow.
Scary Stories also skirts around the 1968 Nixon election, Vietnam and a changing America. Where the certainties of 1950s and early 60s America were vanishing under redevelopment, generational change and political turmoil. However, once again the film fails to capture and own the themes it randomly slots into its story. Never joining the dots of the overarching story into anything meaningful or interesting. The supernatural exploration the book origins. While fun, offers little creativity and difference to a raft of other films exploring haunted objects and houses.
Scary Movies to Tell in the Dark is a strange mix of reverence for its source material, and lacklustre story development that has you screaming at the screen, for all the wrong reasons. Yet despite its flaws it offers glimpses of creativity and brilliance, that provide an enjoyable if forgettable halloween ride.