If you haven’t seen the illustrations to the book of the same name, I urge you to do so, because they are nightmare-inducing. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark never really took off in the UK as it did in the US (at least, I don’t remember ever reading them) but apparently the series has a big cult following. While director Andre Øvredal has his claim to fame in the 2011 film Trollhunter, it’s the serving producer and master of monsters Guillermo Del Toro who will be the name that jumps out at audiences. You can see his influence at work in the film, but it also can tell a story that is easy to engage with, despite having a few kinks in it.
I have to say first of all, that if I were to judge this film purely on how the monsters stay faithful to the source material, this film would be a masterpiece. The design of the monsters are remarkably accurate to the illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Although it’s a bit of a cliché to say, the monsters feel like they’ve jumped out of the pages of the book, even more impressive is the monsters are as practical as they can be, and when digital effects have to take over, the quality of their presence is unaltered. People often ask which films use digital and practical seamlessly, now you can add this film to the list.
As well as me not being acquainted with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I’m also not too familiar with the cast, but they’ve left me with a good impression as well. Across the board, these young, mostly unknown actors have undergone a huge performing task with a lot asked from them. Zoe Margaret Colletti takes the lead as Stella, she’s a loner coming to terms with something that happened with her family who has a soft spot for scary things. Watching Colletti on screen, you can tell that she is more than comfortable in her leading role, she keeps the mystery in the film fresh and inventive which stretches out into the horror elements of the film.
The period the film is set in plays a big role from a narrative perspective. Young Americans are flying off to fight in Vietnam and the 1968 Presidential elections are taking place. The film often moves away from the main story to give you snippets of what point we’re at with these historical events. At first, there is no clear relevance to these historical events and the film itself, you could argue the case that the two are parallels of each other, the horror of Vietnam is somehow shown as similar to the scary stories. However, they do supply the relevant backstory to Ramón (Michael Garza) which I felt added a lot of depth to the character and why he seems to be hated around town.
While the monsters of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are remarkably frightening, their sudden appearance in the story is ruined slightly by an all over the place tone, and nowhere is that more evident than the scares themselves. The first two stories told are genuinely scary scenes, the build-up to how scary the monster is going to look is full of dread and excitement. The rest of the stories told have a different approach and rely on the creepiness of the monsters rather than how scary they look. The heavyweight that comes with this approach is having to show the monsters way too early, spoiling any kind of anticipation the monsters have. To someone who’s experiencing these stories for the first time, like myself, this can put a dent in the viewing experience.
There’s no beating around the bush about this, the film uses jump scares. Ah yes, the forbidden words that can give any horror film an instant bad reputation, if they are used incorrectly. Luckily, the use of jump scares in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark can at times be forgivable because of the fantastic build-up that feels fresh every time, however, this led into the change of tone. For the first half, it is very reliant on jump scares, then it puts them aside before revisiting them on a smaller scale for the film’s finale. It makes you wonder what the film is trying to accomplish with its scares.
While the questionable scares could make audiences disinteresting in this film, however, it is the mystery of the Bellows family and their daughter Sarah at the center of the narrative that will stay engaging. Although I’m a little confused as to how the more paranormal elements of the mystery work, in particular, the red room. Traditionally, any kind of haunting is often triggered by something, in this film, we assume that it began with the characters taking Sarah’s book, yet Chuck (Austin Zajur) has visions of a red room before this. So when does the haunting start to operate? This red room is revisited later on very lazily as we learn Chuck has had more red room visions off-screen. How are we supposed to believe that these visions have had a massive psychological impact on the character when audiences have only seen this once? Regrettably, this film fell into the pitfall trap of telling and not showing.
Apparently, there were some behind the scenes kerfuffle’s abut what rating this film would receive. In America it is PG-13, but in the UK it is a 15. That’s quite a big age gap when you stop to think about it. The film is clearly trying to accommodate these two audiences but I can’t decide whether this is too scary or too tame.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is muddled in the places where it shouldn’t be. To it’s confusing scares to its lack of a clear demographic, I wouldn’t be surprised if people were to say that it was a bit of a mess. However, it makes up for the confusion by having an engaging horror-mystery and great performers to keep it engaging. Del Toro’s influence is as clear as day and I’m looking forward towards seeing future monsters I’ve recently been impressed by.
Final Result: 6/10 – Above Average
7/10 – Good (for engaging mystery)
Have you seen Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Next Time: Mrs. Lowry & Son