The film adaptation of the classic horror anthology has finally hit the big screen!
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz is a book series beloved by Gen Xers and millennials alike. Naturally, when we heard the movie was coming out, the literature lovers and horror junkies on the site couldn’t wait to see it and write a review. An original screenplay by Guillermo del Toro that ties these beloved scary stories into a cohesive plot?! What could go wrong?
The year is 1968–the place, the small town of Mill Valley, PA. On the night of Halloween, friends Stella (Zoe Colleti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) get together to get revenge on the class bully, Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams). He chases them into the drive-in where the three take cover in the car of Ramón, a “stranger” who’s passing through town. To thank him for saving them, Stella, an aspiring writer and horror junkie, offers to show him a real haunted house.
The group enters the abandoned mansion of the Bellows family, the family that opened and ran a paper mill that put Mill Valley on the map. Stella recites the legend of Sarah Bellows, a daughter that was locked away due to some unknown disfigurement or ailment. It was rumored that children would approach the house and Sarah would tell them stories through the wall. When children started mysteriously dying, Sarah was accused of poisoning them and was rumored to have hung herself with her own hair.
They discover a secret passage leading to the room where Sarah was kept. Inside Stella discovers a book of stories written in fresh red ink. As she begins to flip through the stories, Tommy, along with Chuck’s sister Ruthie, catches up with the group at the house. Tommy locks them (including Ruthie) in, but a ghostly presence has been awakened and releases the latch.
Stella takes the book from the house, and as she continues to read through the tales, new stories begin to write themselves right before her eyes. Stories about people she knows—people who were in the house that Halloween night. As these stories appear and people begin to disappear, the movie turns into a race against some arbitrary clock to figure out how to stop the stories.
“Harold”, “The Big Toe”, “The Red Spot”, “The Jangly Man”, and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker” are Stories that manifest in the film and impact the characters’ lives. There are some new characters/stories too, including the red room, the Pale Lady, and “The Haunted House.” The character design, special effects, and scare factor were all superb in bringing these stories to life. They came off of the pages in the most creative, twisted ways. Unfortunately though, the screenplay and the execution of the plot were pretty weak, and that took something away from what could have been a great horror movie.
These stories occur while other events are happening: Stella is dealing with her aspirations to be a writer, her sadness and guilt about her mother abandoning her family while maintaining a relationship with her dad (which has nothing to do with the plot), and investigating what actually happened to Sarah Bellows; the group of adolescents are dealing with the “children versus the ineffectual police who just don’t believe them” trope; the setting very clearly takes place during the presidential election and Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War propaganda are all up in your face.
I’m a firm believer in making bold choices, but none of these choices added anything to the film. The little extra background to Stella’s character, the struggle against the adults who ultimately can’t help or protect the kids, and the time period all seem to have been chosen at random and were not tied together very well.These pieces of the film could have worked really well by putting them together in a way that contributed to the world-building aspect of the film, but the lack of cohesion caused the story to fall flat.
For the sake of avoiding major spoilers, I won’t go into details, but my ultimate disappointment was with the resolution. The ending consisted of virtually no logical answers and some very lazy writing. Like the majority of the film, the choices for the ending felt a bit like they’d thrown darts at a storyboard of various endings, including the introduction of a VERY IMPORTANT PLOT DEVICE that wasn’t even hinted at until the end. The reveal was so far out of left field, it really pumped the brakes on what little traction the film had left.
I do want to, again, give the movie props for the special effects and creepy atmosphere. I’ll even give it props for not falling into the usual traps that cause horror movies to flop and for creating an original story out of a collection of short stories—we at Poor Man have personal (cringeworthy) experience with trying to create a show with a cohesive plot out of a series of randomly chosen musical songs. It isn’t easy out here for the Creatives, and sometimes you try things that just don’t work. That doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying to innovate or reimagine old favorites in new ways.
A+ effects and atmosphere, C- storytelling and execution
Final Grade: B