In 1981, Harper published Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and decades of nightmares followed. The books were aimed at young readers, but the often disturbing stories accompanied by terrifying illustrations both traumatized – and thrilled – generations. Now, Scary Stories comes to the big screen, thanks to Guillermo del Toro and André Øvredal. Does the film adaptation have the power of the books? Or were these Scary Stories not worth telling? Spoilers follow.
The true villain of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t the bug-infested scarecrow Harold. Nor is it the ghoulish specter searching for her missing toe; nor the so-called Jangly Man, assembled at odd-angles from dismembered body parts. It’s not even Sarah Bellows, the ghostly figure who is behind all the terror that seeps into the narrative. No, the real big bad of Scary Stories is – believe it or not – Richard Nixon.
Nixon isn’t actually a character in the movie – don’t worry, there’s no character actor here slathered in make-up doing a bad Nixon voice – but he looms large, like America’s boogeyman, glimpsed in shadowy black and white on fuzzy TV screens. It’s the fall of 1968, and the future is riding on the impending election. Lyndon B. Johnson had vowed to not seek a second term – a move that threw the Democratic party into a tailspin and gave rise to Robert Kennedy, brother of the slain JFK. The younger Kennedy’s star was on the rise, and it was beginning to look as if he would cinch the Dem nomination, beating out then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and staunchly anti-Vietnam candidate Eugene McCarthy. Hope was in the air.
And then Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Cut down just as his brother had been a few years before. And America changed – for the worse. Republican candidate Richard Nixon rose higher and higher in the polls, eventually pitted against Humprey. Nixon would go on to victory (with some big help from the electoral college). And nothing would ever be the same again.
The ins and outs of the 1968 U.S. presidential election aren’t touched on in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, director André Øvredal’s spooky but messy adaptation of the wildly popular tales of terror aimed at younger readers. But a basic knowledge of the background gives the proceedings a little extra weight. As election night draws near, a radio DJ (clearly modeled on real-life DJ Wolfman Jack and his radio commentary running through George Lucas’s American Grafitti), urges voters to do the right thing. To cast their vote based on which candidate would end the bloody Vietnam War. “Save our children,” the DJ begs, referring to the young bodies sent off to Vietnam, only to be shipped back home in boxes (if their bodies were even found at all).
You wouldn’t expect a Scary Stories movie to have such social and political commentary, but it does. It’s not handled in an overly nuanced way, but the implications rise above the haunted house spookshow effects, resulting in an ominous message: children must often suffer for their elder’s mistakes. The young people drafted to fight in Vietnam had no say in the matter – they were simply told to go fight, and potentially die, because adults in power told them to. During the campaign, Nixon promised to end the war – and end it honorably.
Humphrey, meanwhile, had the stench of the Vietnam debacle all over him. He was, after all, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president – and it was, in many ways, Johnson’s war. When voters headed to the polls, many of them thought that Nixon was the best bet to end the war, while Humphrey would keep the war churning along, chewing up and spitting out human bodies in the process. But in truth, Humphrey was against Vietnam and had been urging Johnson to pull out as far back as 1965. As historian Michael Brenes wrote, “Humphrey forces us to consider the history that might have been: the possibility of ending the Vietnam War before 1973, an expansion of the Great Society in the 1970s, a different America. Without Vietnam (and his being Johnson’s vice president), Humphrey might have won in 1968. The country — and the world — would be drastically different.” But of course, that’s not what happened. America rejected Humphrey and embraced Nixon – because, as history shows, America loves a good boogeyman.
What a strange approach this is. Directed by Autopsy of Jane Doe helmer Øvredal, and produced by monster-lover Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories brings the iconic (and often controversial) trilogy of books penned by Alvin Schwartz to the big screen. Schwartz drew on centuries of folklore to spin a series of creepy, amusing horror stories that drew on familiar fears and urban legends. The stories themselves were scary in a charming sort of way – but also incredibly short. The real power in the books, though, resided in the hair-raising artwork created by illustrator Stephen Gammell. Gammell’s drippy, abstract, often repulsive drawings are the stuff of nightmares – a fact that puts any live-action adaptation of Scary Stories adaptation in a tight spot. How to bring these stories to life when the stories themselves are a bit lacking?
The answer is to (mostly) ignore the stories. Øvredal and del Toro are self-professed fans of the books, but you wouldn’t know it to watch Scary Stories. Sure, there are plenty of winks and nods to the books. And yes, several of the characters from the pages Schwartz penned have a part to play. But the script, by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, jettisons the bulk of the text and attempts to tell a scary story all its own. A story about America at the tail-end of the ’60s headed towards potential oblivion. Curious to think this film arrives on the heels of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, another film that attempted to reexamine the conclusion of that tumultuous decade.
But while Tarantino’s drama-comedy has a warm-yet-melancholic approach to the era, Scary Stories is bleak and potentially hopeless. Because we – unlike the characters in the film – know how things will play out after the election results come in. This makes a final scene, in which one of the movie’s young characters boards a bus to be shipped off to ‘Nam, all the more chilling.
That young character is Ramon (Michael Garza), an outsider who rolls into the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania on Halloween night as the movie begins. Ramon is on the lam – a draft dodger attempting to outrun Uncle Sam. He has a good reason to want to give peace a chance: his brother was also drafted, and ended up being sent back home in pieces.
As Ramon rolls his car into Mill Valley, Øvredal uses splendid cinematic language to introduce us to the cast of potentially doomed characters. As the camera jumps from one person to the next, we learn everything we need to know about these individuals in a short span of time. There’s Stella (Zoe Coletti), a bespectacled horror nerd who pounds away at horror stories on her typewriter and casts cautious glances at her morose father (Dean Norris). Stella two best friends are the lanky, no-nonsense Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and the motor-mouthed wiseass Chuck (Austin Zajur), who lives with his older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). Ruth just happens to be dating Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams), a budding young sociopath who has been bullying Stella and her pals for years.
This Halloween, they decide to get payback by assaulting Tommy’s car with flaming bags of human shit. Tommy is understandably furious about this – chasing the trio to a drive-in movie theater screening Night of the Living Dead. It’s there that Stella, Auggie and Chuck meet-up with Ramon, who strikes up an immediate rapport with Stella. She seems pretty keen on him, too, and decides to wow the out-of-towner by inviting him to a real haunted house.
That would be the Bellows House, a spooky old manse that once belonged to the wealthy Bellows family. The Bellows clan ran a highly successful paper mill that put Mill Valley on the map – but that high social status was shattered by Sarah Bellows, a young girl from the Bellows family who was accused of having poisoned several children. Urban legend has it that Sarah’s family locked her up in a cell-like room behind a wall, where the only company she had was a book of scary stories she wrote herself – in blood.
During this lengthy sequence, it appears that cinematographer Roman Osin took the “in the Dark” part of the title a bit too literally. The darkness in these scenes is nearly impenetrable, to the point where it’s impossible to see what the hell is going on. There are many ways to shoot darkness – especially horror movie darkness – that ultimately result in clear, coherent visuals. Scary Stories doesn’t have a grasp on that and buries much of its thrills and chills in murky sludge.
Equally murky is the mythology surrounding Sarah. Scary Stories eventually spells things out – Sarah was innocent of her crimes and was trying to warn people that it was her family who was poisoning children, with mercury leaking from the paper mill into the water. It fits neatly with the film’s theme of children suffering for the mistakes of their elders, but the build-up to this reveal is clunky at best, underlining how slipshod the script is. Or maybe the script is not to blame. Several scenes feel as if they’re missing something – as if editor Patrick Larsgaard had the unfortunate task of chopping things down to the bare minimum. At one point, Chuck tells his friends: “I’ve been having that nightmare…” as if it’s something he’s talked about before. Maybe he has – off-screen. But it’s the first time we’re hearing about it. Instead of letting the narrative breathe, and coalesce naturally, Øvredal saddles his cast with heavy-handed exposition, to the point where it sounds as if some of the characters are flat-out narrating the scenes we’re watching.
While the dialogue does no one any favors (“You don’t read the book, the book reads you!”), the young cast does an exemplary job overall. Zoe Colletti is particularly winning as horror fan Stella, who still gets painfully uncomfortable whenever someone brings up her absentee mother. Colletti is tasked with the brunt of the film’s emotional lifting, and she delivers – particularly during the big climactic scenes where she’s rendered terrified and sobbing.
During the initial visit to the Bellows house, Stella just happens upon Sarah Bellows’s book and swipes it. This angers Sarah – for reasons the movie never really makes clear – and the ghost proceeds to bump-off Stella’s pals one by one. To achieve this, the specter writes new stories featuring Stella’s friends – stories that come to life. The bully Tommy is dispatched by a shuffling, creaking scarecrow. Auggie is pulled into endless darkness after accidentally munching on a severed human toe (hate it when that happens). Ruth gets a spider bite that proceeds to burst forth and issue thousands of spiders. And poor Chuck’s nightmare comes true, in which a hefty pale woman comes for him with open arms.
All of these sequences are effective, and some are downright chilling – the pale lady scene is a big stand-out, staged in the mid-point between several hallways, all of which inexplicably have the pale lady in them, waddling towards Chuck (and us) with no real urgency. The slow, deliberate way Øvredal lets this scene develop adds an extra layer of terror.
Yet one can’t help but think back to how much more creepy most of these scenarios were in Schwartz’s book – because there, we had to rely on our imaginations. The spider bite scene in particular, while plenty gross, is not nearly as disturbing as it is in story form. There, the reader was forced to imagine just what it would look like if arachnids came hatching out of someone’s skin. While it wasn’t a true story, it was easy to let your mind run away with the idea: “What if a spider did lay its eggs in our face while we were sleeping? It could happen!” Here, it’s rendered in CGI, and the thousands upon thousands of spiders that issue from poor Ruth’s face never once seems like anything rooted in the real world. And perhaps that’s the greatest flaw of Scary Stories.
With their propensity to draw on folklore and urban legends, the tales in Schwartz’s books always had a slight ring of believability to them. Even the stories that dipped into the supernatural played out in a manner that made the young reader think: “This could happen!” That concept never once pops-up in the Scary Stories film, where everything unfolding is unapologetically fantastical. Ask yourself what’s scarier: things that go bump in the night that you could easily believe are real, and lurking in the darkness of your bedroom – or a cursed book that summons CGI-enhanced ghouls?
Stella and Ramon eventually prevail. Ramon is chased by the dismembered monster known as Jangly Man – and it’s easy to see the correlation between Ramon’s dead brother (“They sent him home in pieces.”) and this pieced-together nightmare character. Stella, meanwhile, ends up back at the Bellows house, where she gets a glimpse of how terrible the Bellows family was to Sarah. There, Stella proceeds to promise Sarah she’ll tell her story – her true story. That she was innocent years ago, framed by her cruel family. It all wraps-up a little too neatly, and a pointless, sequel-inducing coda in which Stella tells us she’s sure she can save her seemingly dead friends…in the next movie, leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth.
And yet…it’s hard to dislike Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Especially if you’re a horror fan. Aficionados of the macabre all have to get their start somewhere. I can distinctly remember being shown the classic Universal monsters movies as a kid – a life-changing experience that turned me into a lifelong horror fan. Watching the black and white monsters stalk across Universal backlots lit a fire in my young bring; made me think: “I want more of this.”
You can easily see Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doing the same thing to some kid out there ready to learn what horror is all about. To that end, this film is a gateway drug for budding young horror fans. Because while Scary Stories is clearly aimed at a younger audience, it doesn’t shy away from darkness. The kids here really do appear to die, and there’s something subversive about that. In the days when Amblin reigned supreme, children in films were often in real danger (or as “real” as any movie danger can be). Over the years, Hollywood watered that down, to the point where the prospect of anything genuinely bad happening to a character in a kids movie was all but unthinkable. Scary Stories doesn’t play by those rules, though.
Even with all the creature designs and loud jump scares, the most chilling moment in Scary Stories comes when Ramon finally boards that bus to go off to Vietnam. What are his odds of coming back alive? It’s as if he’s a condemned man, resigned to calmly making his way to the gallows. Why fight it? Better to just give in, and let the machine chew you up and spit you out. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark understands that in the real world, kids really do get put in danger. In the real world, kids die. They suffer at the hands of bullies, or abusive parents, or racist cops. Or they get sent off to war by grinning, empty-suited politicians. How scary is that?
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