Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a haphazard horror experience. It wants to be random scare stories but it is cobbled together by a fairly tenuous narrative connection which feels hokey as the artifice starts to show. Basically, it’s hard to care about the people under duress in this film because they’re incredibly annoying, even by horror movie standards. The scare scenes have some good moments, and one scene is absolutely fantastic, but this isn’t distinctive enough. In a year with unique horror efforts like Us, Midsonmmar and Birghtburn, Scary Stories falls short.
In the late 1960s’, Stella (Zoe Colletti) is going out for Halloween with her friends, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), and are chased by the bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams). They run into a stranger, Ramon (Michael Garza) who protects them and end up in an old house and find a creepy book. It turns out the book is writing stories about horrible fates that will befall the kids by various monsters and demons that appear. So now they have to look into the history of the evil spirt that wrote the book and stop it before the monsters takes them all out.
The character designs are pretty good although they do also seem a wee bit like production leftovers producer and story co–writer Guillermo del Toro had hanging out from Pan’s Labyrinth and he just shoved them into a different flick. The look of the scarecrow that taunts the high school jerk has a disconcerting gap in the middle of its chest and bugs crawling on its face, although the scarecrow seems more frightening when it is not moving. A creature that comes in pieces, assembles itself, and then disassembles itself is unique although some shots of it crawling together look a bit too CGI. A scene with a puss filled swollen spider bite that gets worse until spiders crawl out of a girls’ face is effectively disgusting.
Probably the best design, and best scare in the movie, is the pale lady creature that slowly advances on an unlucky sap. It’s so incredibly slow, weird, and distorted as it has a twisted disturbed smile. And every angle the kid turns, the monster is still advancing. It’s a nifty scene that stretches out the tension until the messy end. It is such a good scare sequence that frankly the other scenes seem weak.
The central baddie of the movie is an evil book that is possessed by a spirit of a woman who was done wrong decades ago. At critical moments the book will start writing on blank pages what is going to happen. At one point they try to set it on fire to destroy it but it doesn’t burn, and when they tear out pages about a forthcoming monster attack, it just keeps writing itself. It seems like the self-aware Necronomicon Ex Mortis from Evil Dead but with less of a cool design and personality.
There is a good scene where the kids find an old recording of a tortured woman enduring electro shock “therapy” that is just vocal performances and is very chilling. The baddie is one of those haunted ghosts that the audience eventually is supposed to feel sympathy for which is a bit of a drag. Full bore evil spirits is always more scary than tragic upbringing evil spirits. The finale involves a deep dive into the spirit’s history which is an odd way to get to an ending considering the entire movie has been repeatedly saying this spirit is unstoppable murderous evil.
The characters are mostly indistinguishable fodder who complain a hell of a lot. The only likable one is Garza as a draft dodger being pestered by the racist small town cop. His life already seems unfair and then on top of it, he’s also being chased by demonic monsters. Setting the movie in the late ‘60s gets in some fun Nixon re–election references but the time period doesn’t really have an effect on the film tonally. Colletti as Stella spends most of her time whining about the stories that are becoming real and destroying her life. It feels like about 50% of her dialogue is just variations upon the word “stories” cried at a really high volume.
Her dad is played by Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) who gets an emotional scene on the phone with his daughter that shows how good of an actor Norris is. He deserves better stuff than this. Zajur and Rush as the buddies are just sort of dopey, Rush doesn’t make much impact and Zajur’s Chuck is mild comic relief whose entire character predominantly defined by having a sexy girl pen. Abrams as the bully is basically every bully cliché all at once.
This sort of wants to be like It with the kids discovering the looming terror overcoming them but while that group was interesting, these folks are not. So it’s mostly just waiting around for the next scare. There’s also a sequel bait tease in the final seconds that is more irritating than tantalizing. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may want to tell more stories but, after this time, once is more than enough. V
Scary Stories to
Tell in the Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti,
Michael Garza and Gabriel Rush