Screenplay by: Dan Hageman, and Kevin Hageman
Directed by: André Øvredal
The shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large in the small town of Mill Valley for generations. It’s in a mansion that young Sarah Bellows turns her tortured life and horrible secrets into a series of scary stories. These terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real for a group of unsuspecting teens who stumble upon Sarah’s spooky home.
I myself have a few memories of this collection of tales. My strongest memory is seeing this book on my goth friend’s shelves. It wasn’t really something I was allowed to read when I was younger. Despite that, my familiarity with the book gave me some context going into the film. I expected a movie with a strong emphasis on the tradition & power of oral storytelling. That’s exactly what I got. With del Toro attached I also anticipated some scary monsters, and a strong storyline. The latter shines through, the former could use some polish.
Spoilers ahead from this point!
The opening sequence of Scary Stories was loaded with Halloween movie nostalgia. The opening monologue makes it clear that the act of telling stories will be a primary focus of the plot. This immediately drew me in and love how the film highlights the helpful and damaging effects of storytelling. I was reminded of genre favorites like Hocus Pocus, Halloweentown, Silent Hill, and IT. Small town vibes and a cast of best friends perfectly outline the trajectory of the story. Soon enough the friends happen upon a haunted house, and even though they leave fairly quickly something follows them home.
Throughout the movie, a mysterious force writes out the deaths of many major characters in a book taken from the haunted house. As characters drop off one by one, it becomes clear that somehow the stories need to be stopped.
The source material for this film is an anthology, and there are certain moments in the film that embrace that short story concept. At times, it makes the pacing feel a bit disjointed as a great deal of time is devoted to scenes/creatures that later have little impact. On the flip side, these vignettes celebrate the practice of sharing lots of scary stories over the course of an evening.
Overall, Scary Stories tries to strike a balance between the truly terrifying and lighthearted. One character in particular, Chuck (Austin Zajur), does a great job of breaking up the tension with jokes. When he is targeted by evil film, it is truly distressing to see such a jovial character so frightened. The main character, Stella, was stellar. She is a Gryffindor through and through. Stella is brave, almost to a fault. She is more than willing to throw herself in harm’s way in order to protect her friends. She has some darkness in her, which presents itself through her lack of self-preservation. Ultimately, it seems that she would happily sacrifice herself for the sake of her loved ones. Zoe Colletti is charming and lovely to watch throughout the movie, I was definitely rooting for her to find a way to save her friends.
My primary point of contention is with the monsters in the film. The first story depicts a terrifying scarecrow with a high level of realism. As the movie progresses, the monsters become less and less realistic. The monster with the greatest amount of screen time has the most CGI elements (by necessity) which really threw me out of the film. It was jarring to have such visual inconsistencies. That being said, the design of the monsters was great, it was only their rendering I found lacking.
I would love to see future films in this series, I think there is a lot of potential to expand on the world and the ideas presented in Scary Stories. Something about this movie feels very true to the spirit of the original book, and I love that! Though there are some very scary scares, I felt the movie catered to a fairly broad age range. It’s the perfect film to get you in the mood for Fall, and for more scary movies over the next few months. I give it a B+.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark opens on August 9th, 2019 in the United States.