Saturday, August 31, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Okay, I'm going to say it.  Horror films CAN be rated PG-13 and still be effective.  Sure, the rating limits the use of gory effects, but if the atmosphere is right and the story is strong enough, the movie will work.  And Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does work.  It's creepy, dark and very entertaining.  And it's a great gateway film for young horror fans.

Just a quick word of warning.  Don't go in expecting a Guillermo del Toro film.  While his name is attached to the film, it's not his movie.  He produced the film, and does share a story credit with two others, but as with 2010's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, he found a director who shares his sensibilities in André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), who delivers a creepy, dark tale dealing about facing one's fears.  At least, that's the sense I got from the conclusion, but it doesn't really work.  More on that later.

Although facing this damn thing is going to be hard for anyone,
even a horror fan.

The film takes place on Halloween night in a small Pennsylvania town in 1968.  Amateur horror writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur)  incur the wrath of local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams).  But his plans against the group are thwarted by Ramon (Micheal Garza), who just drove into town.

The four head to a local haunted house, which is a GREAT idea on Halloween night.  Of course, they find a book of scary stories owned by Sarah Bellows, the family daughter who's been removed from all the family photos.  Tommy follows them and locks them in the room along with his girlfriend, Chuck's sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn).  Some unseen presence released them and the group leaves, with the freaking book!  For being a horror writer, Stella seems to have missed the point that one never leaves a haunted location with ANYTHING.

Dammit, Stella, you should know better.
Don't EVER take something out of a haunted house!
It NEVER ends well!!

Later that night, Stella discovers a new story being written in Sarah's book, with Tommy as the main character.  And soon, Tommy is attacked by a scarecrow and is reported missing the next day.  Stella and Ramon head to Tommy's home, only to find his clothes on a new scarecrow in the cornfield.

Okay, I get it.  Scarecrows in a dark cornfield are scary, but probably not to someone living on a corn farm.
Unless the scarecrow looks like it was made by Ed Gein.

And, as expected, mayhem ensues as new stories are written by Sarah, and Stella's friends become targets.

Okay, I have to confess that I have not read the books this movie is based upon.  Published in the 80s, I was already devouring the glut of adult horror books flooding the market and wasn't aware these books existed.  But I am aware of the controversies these books continue to generate, as author Alvin Schwartz didn't shy away from some violent content, and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell are pretty horrific.  But not reading the source material won't hamper your enjoyment of these dark tales.

However, it does bring up one small problem.  As the stories appear in Sarah's book, the film cuts to the mayhem occurring to the character written into the tale.  For those who haven't read Schwartz's books, we get no history of the creature, why they exists, and why a particular character is being hunted by it.  As many of the stories in the books are based on folklore tales and urban legends, the monsters probably exist to impart a moral to the reader.  But the film moves too fast in introducing the creatures to their victims, without explaining why the attack is happening to a character.

Okay, I know I'm being attacked by a very scary creature.
But I just have to ask, why me?  And why this big, doughy thing?

The young cast does a good job, though we don't get enough time with them before things go crazy to develop their characters in any way.  Øvredal isn't afraid to keep things in the shadow, which is quite effective.  But I suspect it was also used to ensure the film received a PG-13 rating, as some scenes might have crossed into R rated territory if not hidden in shadows.

And, thankfully, the film isn't over-reliant on jump scares.  Sure, like all horror films, it has a few, but once they appear on the screen, the creatures tend to stay out in the open, rather than lurking in the shadows waiting to leap out of the darkness.  And it's nice to see some characters react to the monsters in a very human fashion.  Seriously, who among us, if we were armed, wouldn't unload a pistol into a dismembered, living human head?  Sure, the results aren't as effective as the character would hope, but it's a very human reaction and a nice touch.

As Jack Burton would say,
you never know until you try!

In fact, the most horrific moment of the film isn't visual.  As Stella tries to stop her friends from being attacked by the monsters written into the book, she finds a recording of Sarah's electroshock therapy performed by her brother to keep her from telling the truth about the Bellow's mill, which is poisoning the town.  It's basically a torture scene and the audio is powerful, more terrifying than the monsters Sarah now creates.  And without any visual cues, the audience is allowed to imagine the scene, which ends up being more horrific than any filmed depiction of the procedure.

Okay, I said earlier that the film is about facing one's fears, and the ending does deal with it somewhat.  Ramon is shown facing his fear, which is portrayed in the monster he faces earlier.  But Stella's friends simply meet with terrifying monsters that have no connection with their limited character development.  And, as one character recovers from their ordeal without showing any sign that they faced their obvious fear, the conclusion to Ramon's story is lessened.  Rather than being a morality tale, which is common with most folktales, the stories/attacks are simply little more than an excuse to bring the book's monsters to life, and the film's conclusion suffers from it.

Okay, it's an obvious fear for teens to have that a massive zit will pop up at the worst time possible.
Too bad it's the 60s, or she might have been able to faced that fear on YouTube.

Of course, the film ends on a somewhat happy note, which, as expected, sets up a sequel.  I don't know how the filmmakers could pull that off, as the story with Sarah has reached its conclusion.  But I'd be happy to see More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark show up at my local cinema at some point.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will please fans who read the books when they were young, as the monsters on the screen are good representations of Gammell's illustrations.  And for adults who missed out on the books, the film will make you want to check out Schwartz's work to see what you missed.  As for the kids, it's a perfect gateway film for budding horror fans, terrifying without being overly gory.  You just might want to abandon the suggesting in the title and leave a light on for the younger ones.

And maybe for a few hours afterwards.
Just saying.

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