It’s nearing mid-August, and back-to-school ads are running non-stop, Starbucks has announced that its pumpkin-spiced drinks will return by the end of the month, and stores are putting Halloween decorations front and center. It’s that time of year when summer is winding down and fall is inevitable. With that comes the release of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, directed by André Øvredal, produced by Guillermo del Toro, and based on the popular books by Alvin Schwartz. The film adaption may have some narrative lulls, but overall, it’s a fun film with some cool monsters and decent scares.
Set in 1968, the film has a quasi main protagonist in Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who wants to be a horror writer and whose bedroom is plastered with posters of Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, and other genre icons, including a Gil-man action figure. She and her friends, Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Ausin Zajur), and the mysterious Ramon (Michael Garza), venture to a haunted house on Halloween night and stumble upon the book of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). Lone behold, the stories start to write themselves one by one in blood. There is some narrative arc surrounding the group of friends and the torment Sarah faced as an Other/outcast because of her albino skin, which caused her to write the stories and punish others, but some of the narrative falls flat. The most interesting thread is Stella’s story, who sympathizes with Sarah because she feels like an outsider and believes it’s her fault that her mom and dad split. Her pain is genuine, and it’s why she also bonds with Ramon, who is Othered by a bunch of jocks and called a wet back.
Stella played by Zoe Margaret Colletti
The real highlight of the film, however, are the monsters. This is where Øvredal really. shines, when the characters are running through shadowy, creaky corridors of the Bellow estate or through corn stalks, hunted by Harold the Scarecrow. The monsters are top notch, not only Harold the Scarecrow, but also The Jangly Man, who’s composed of rotting body parts, and the Pale-faced Lady, whose permanent smile is chilling. The concept of the book reading each character’s fears is a nice touch, especially pertaining to Ramon’s story and The Jangly Man.
The film’s real weakness is the time and space between the stories, the narratives among the friends, some of whom feel like under-cooked stock characters shoe-horned into the film to justify another scary story. But when the bloody ink starts filling the blank pages of Sarah’s book and a new story is about to begin, the audience is in for a real treat.
Øvredal is one of the most interesting directors in horror right now. The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of the most nerve-wracking flicks of the last few years. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is his first big budget film, and he generally does a good job with it, especially when the film leans into horror and lifts the monsters off the page. The film is bogged down by too much dead weight at times, but it’s certainly worth the price of admission during these waning weeks of summer.