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Not All That Scary

Dean Norris
Dean Norris
 108 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByAndre Ovredal
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Audiences can be forgiven if they go into Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark thinking that they’re actually going to see a collection of dramatizations of scary stories. After all, the horror anthology is a venerable cinematic institution dating back to the 1940s, with more familiar recent versions like Stephen King and George Romero’s Creepshow and the various incarnations of Tales from the Crypt. And the movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on a series of children’s books by Alvin Schwartz from the 1980s that actually were horror story collections. Nonetheless, what occupies some 100 minutes of screen time isn’t a collection of stories but, instead, a handful of what might best be called supposedly scary scenes that show up from time to time in the middle of a period coming-of-age story. That coming-of-age story proves surprisingly good, so much so that I wish the producers had just concentrated on it and jettisoned all attempts at horror.


For those unfamiliar with the Schwartz stories, they were mostly campfire tales and urban legends (Schwartz was a noted folklorist), many of which were probably already familiar to the children reading them back in the day. Since the average story was only three or four pages long, that didn’t afford Schwartz much room for niceties like character or plot development. That same fundamental structural weakness applies to the movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Each “story” scene can pretty much be summed up in one sentence: Someone walks into a spooky location, and something bad happens. 


A series of five-minute scenes would quickly grow tiresome, even to pre-teens and certainly to the under-25 target audience for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. So, screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman come up with not one, but two framing devices. Surprisingly, this seeming recipe for disaster turns out well, since the coming-of-age portion of the movie proves to be far more than a framing device.


Scary Stories takes place in fictional Mill Valley, PA, on Halloween night of 1968. The filmmakers chose that date strategically since the film takes place only a few days before the election of Richard Nixon as President. And, while the horrors on display in the movie take place, the real-life horrors of the Vietnam War are never far away. The protagonists of Scary Stories are four misfit losers who wind up bonding together over the course of the film. Three of them are Mill Valley locals. Stella (Zoe Colletti) is an aspiring writer whose nerdy ways have made her a pariah in her high school. Her only two friends are Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). 


The three still go trick or treating on Halloween and use the occasion to pull off a prank at the expense of the school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). The prank backfires when Tommy chases them into the local drive-in theater (showing Night of the Living Dead). The three friends take refuge in the car of Ramon (Michael Garza), who turns out to be a draft dodger on the run. Their evening ends when they show Ramon a “real” haunted house, the deserted Bellows mansion, former home of the wealthiest family in town (who owned the local mill). Unfortunately, they wind up being locked in the mansion by an angry Tommy who had followed them.


The three manage to escape, but in so doing, Stella finds the long-lost journal of Sarah Bellows, who had been kept a prisoner in the mansion by her family. Sarah wrote stories in the journal to maintain her sanity, and Stella empathizes with Sarah until discovering that handwritten stories start magically appearing in the journal. These stories inevitably involve people coming to bad ends, and Stella and her friends discover, to their shock, that life winds up imitating art, with people in town dying in the same manner as do characters in the story. The second half of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark mainly involves Stella and friends trying to figure out what actually happened to Sarah decades earlier and somehow to stop the stories from appearing.


So, Scary Stories is really three movies in one, and the three don’t always fit together very well. Starting at the top, the story of small-town Americana on the verge of the Nixon election has some familiar elements, but it also sets up some parallels between then and now. Younger audiences may not appreciate story threads about Ramon, a stranger in town, encountering bigotry at the hands of Tommy and suspicion from the local police, but I surely did. Similarly, Stella’s single dad (Dean Norris) faces his own horror—being laid off and not being able to provide for his family. And Stella, as played by Zoe Colletti, proved to be quite a sympathetic character, whose writing talents are at the heart of the story. What is really surprising here is that none of this material comes from Schwartz’s storybooks; instead, it seems to channel films like Stand by Me, but with enough originality to separate it from its obvious inspirations. These aspects of Scary Stories stand on their own and make it one of the better coming-of-age stories I’ve seen in a while.


Unfortunately, the sad truth about movie marketing in the year 2019 is that a sensitive coming-of-age story set in 1968 featuring virtually unknown actors is box office poison in wide release. So, Lionsgate decided to put the emphasis on the word “scary.” They had some help in the fact that Guillermo del Toro is one of the producers. However, del Toro doesn’t seem to have had much influence on the finished product. Instead, relatively inexperienced director Andre Ovredal took the helm, and the results were a mixed bag. The framing device that holds the horror together in Scary Stories is the notebook of the unfortunate Sarah Bellows. Her story is revealed in bits and pieces, and, like the coming-of-age material, could have made a good film on its own. But while Ovredal occasionally shows what happened to Sarah at various times (hint: shock therapy), which explains her rather nasty demeanor decades later, it never works as well as it could have, thanks to the choppy nature of the storytelling.


At least, by the end of the film, the story of Sarah makes sense for the most part. The scenes showing what happens to various characters are just thrown into the film to justify calling the movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They’re just not scary, with the worst offender being a sequence in which one character is pursued by ghosts or demons or something supernatural that resembles a cross between Grampa Simpson and Morticia Addams. That scene, which was designed to scare, winds up being the most unintentionally funny of the entire movie.


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark misfires as a horror movie, but I found myself enjoying the story of Stella and her friends. Zoe Colletti acquits herself well as Stella, and the scenes in which there are no supernatural goings-on manage to be quietly emotional. A better film would have jettisoned the individual shock sequences and played up the contrast between Stella’s and Sarah’s stories more. But Scary Stories is still far better than it could have been and better than I feared. It’s also a film that will definitely play better at home with viewers armed with a fast forward button. Add to that the prospect of a sequel to tie up some big loose ends, and the stories may not be scary, but they are worthwhile to tell.

In this scene, a teenage girl lets something get under her skin.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) on IMDb