Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) Review
A DELIGHTFULLY SCARY TALE
Years before literary author R.L. Stine released his ghoulish scary stories for kids in his Goosebumps series, Alvin Schwartz created Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; scaring up young readers with its spooky tales within. First released in 1981, Schwartz’s creation (in case you didn’t know) is a collection of scary stories that are meant from young readers: offering up plenty of thrills and chills within its anthology format. The success of Schwartz’s first short stories collection offered the author to several more ghoulish tales for kids, with the releases of More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (in 1984) and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (in 1991). Now, Lionsgate (in association with CBS Films and Entertainment One) and director André Øvredal present and film adaptation of Schwartz’s novels with the movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Does this project conjure up scary fun or is it just another “run-of-the-mill” generic horror endeavor from Hollywood?
The year is 1968 and the nation is facing an uneasy feeling of the upcoming presidential election and ongoing crisis in Vietnam. In the small town of Mill Valley, Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti) finds comfort / escape with her writing, soon joined by best friends Auggie Hildebrandt (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur) for some Halloween fun, targeting their school bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams for revenge. During their escape from Tommy wrath, the trio comes across a drifter named Ramon (Michael Garza), who’s passing through their town for the night. Quickly befriending Ramon, Stella invites him and her friends to the old and abandoned Bellows Mansion, a place that many locals believed haunted by its dark past of the people that used to dwell there. Inside, the quartet find a secret room and come into contact with the books written by Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), the youngest member of the family, accused of horrible crimes against children, and tortured by her elders, channeling a sinister supernatural darkness into the pages of her macabre tales. Taking one of the cursed books from the Bellows mansion, Stella soon realizes she’s unleashed this black magic, with new stories writing themselves, making the teenagers the subjects as sudden monsters and creatures begin to appear in Mill Valley.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
During my childhood, I remember when Goosebump books first came and how everyone was talking about them (them being everyone in my elementary school) as it was a sort of “gateway” to scary horror-ish tales for kids. So, the Goosebump books were my first novel reading into the horror foray genre for children. That being said, I never really heard about Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology books. I only heard about several years ago…. since I working at a bookstore and had several customers asked for it every now and again. With me not being “super into” the horror genres, I always overlooked Schwartz’s books, but kept on seeing every time a customer for it or when I shelved the book. Heck….it must be a popular read since its placed in the Young Readers section; a section where Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the Warrior series are found.
Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the 2019 film adaptation of Schwartz’s short stories collection. At first glance, I wasn’t really interested in seeing this movie. I really didn’t hear much about the movie being developed (not a whole lot of “buzz” online about it) and the film’s trailer felt a bit generic…. a sort of “darker Goosebumps endeavor” is what I got from it. However, continuing to broaden my movie viewing horizons, I decided to check this film out during its opening weekend to see if is was good or not. What did I think of it? Well, to be honest, I surprisingly liked it. Despite a few problems, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is quite a effective in what wants to tells; showcasing a scary cinematic feature that works quite well from those tweens that want to get into the horror genre, but not so much within adult rated content of blood, gore, and violence. There’s plenty to delight in this feature to get your “spook” on and surely have a fun horror / sinister entertainment value throughout.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is directed by André Øvredal, who previous directed such movies like Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Future Murder. Given his background knowledge of horror movies, Øvredal seems like a perfect choice for tackling a project like this. Additionally, famed “creature feature” director Guillermo del Toro, who signed onto the project back in 2014 (with the possibly of directing the movie), acts as one of the feature’s producer. Though isn’t have his hand “on the wheel”, del Toro’s influences are greatly emphasized in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, especially the usage of more practical effects and in various creature designs. Thus, the collaboration of del Toro and Øvredal seems like a perfect match for this project and it really does work; crafting a feature that definitely works within its context, themes, and cinematic nuances from onset to conclusion. Øvredal shapes the movie to be effective in scares and building up tension, but keeps all the blood and terror violence of adult horror movies at bay, which does make the film’s scarier moments a bit easier to digest for some of the younger viewers out there (roughly older tweens to young teenagers) who want to get into the horror genre. Still, keeping with being a PG-13 range, Øvredal makes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark both spooky fun as well as engaging within the characters, themes, and narratives that the feature conveys.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect that the movie has to offer is within its idea of an original story. Given the fact that Schwartz’s source material is collection of short stories tales, the film’s screenplay, which was penned by del Toro, Dean and Kevin Hageman with a story by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, takes an original story, which does help the movie ties everything together. Still, the movie’s screenplay does take in count of several of Schwartz’s tales, which (after reading them online after seeing the movie) are quite creepy as well as being well-represented the film.
As motion picture, Scary Stories’s presentation is actually pretty good, with Øvredal (and even possibly del Toro) making the feature have a great cinematic / thematic tone throughout the movie. As I mentioned above, the entire movie (from start to finish) kind of feels like an 80s movie (despite taking place in the end of the 60s); finding its background setting and nuances to quite pleasing to the eye in almost like a subtle character of its own. Plus, the entire set design (production and set decorations) for the Bellows mansion was terrific and definitely spooky. Additionally, the movie’s usage of more practical effects to tell its more scary moments (most notably its creature designs) are fantastic to look and definitely have a del Toro style-esque throughout the film (probably his influence on working on this project). Lastly, the movie’s score, which was composed by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich, proves to be quite eerily melodic in the feature; adding an extra layer of “mood” to this already scary film.
There were a few drawbacks and criticism that I did have with Scary Stories that, while not derailing the movie, but rather a few missteps along the way. Perhaps the noticeable one that I felt was in the similar nature between this movie and to the two Goosebumps movies. Of course, one is more family friendly, while the other is more towards mature themes of horror delights, but the parallels between the two film adaptations are quite visible, including a group of kids finding spooky book, opening it up, and the content therein begins to manifest itself into the real world. Again, the tones between Scary Stories and Goosebumps are different, but the ideas are pretty much the same, especially since both have original stories in their respective cinematic movie worlds. It’s not super big deal breaker, but its bit noticeable to me as I viewed and said to myself “Did this happen in the Goosebumps movies?”.
Additionally, given the nature of turning an anthology book of scary stories into a singular narrative for a feature film, there are some problems this creates. Not so much in “missed opportunity” with Schwartz’s short stories that the movie doesn’t tell, but rather in its own creation of this new narrative. While I do like the screenplay and the story it tells, Scary Stories doesn’t shed a complete light on certain aspects. This includes the mystery surrounding the Bellows family and its various members. There’s a backstory at the heart of the narrative, which acts as the “crux” of Sarah’s dark past, but the screenplay never fully explains certain motivations and / or decisions that Bellows family acts upon. To me, I kind of wanted the movie to explore more of this.
As a minor quibble, the ending doesn’t draw much of a proper conclusion to close out the movie’s narrative. What does happen is an ending that’s leaves it on a mystery cliffhanger (of sorts); leaving the film’s story open-ended with a possible future sequel installment to continue the mystery of Sarah Bellows’s book. While I do wholeheartedly welcome the idea of another Scary Stories movie, I was expecting something a bit more resolution to the narrative. I mean…. not everything needs to be setup for a sequel and leaving unanswered questions dangling left me wanting more. Also, there are a couple of scenes where the usage of CGI visual effects is a bit “iffy” in a few spots. Again, it’s not noticeable glaring of a eyesore of bad visual effects and it’s probably mostly due to the film’s low budget cost, but it does take away from what the film’s story wants to project. Lastly, there are some state of affairs (circa 1968) that are scattered throughout the movie’s presentation. Again, it’s not super bad and does play within Scary Stories’s timeframe setting, but it’s a bit “on the nose” in its theatrical nuances.
As I mentioned, the movie does have a smaller budget, but that doesn’t mean that the film’s cast, despite being made up of relatively unknown actors / actresses, isn’t effective in their performances; finding each one given some solid performances in their respective roles (be it major or minor ones). Like 2017’s IT, Scary Stories has a roster of young characters in the movie’s spotlight and all of them certainly do well in both selling their acting talents as well as their film’s characters. In truth, the characters of Stella Nichols and Ramon Morales, who are played by actress Zoe Margaret Colletti (City on the Hill and Annie) and actor Michael Garza (Wayward Pines and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), are Scary Stories true main leads, with the film’s screenplay heavily focusing on their journey throughout the movie. Luckily, both Colletti and Garza sell their respective character builds (quirks and personas) very well and makes it quite easy to root for them as all the film’s horror events befall them. Behind them, the other two members of this teenage quartet is found within the characters of Chuck Steinberg and August “Auggie” Hildebrandt, who are played by actors Austin Zajur (Fist Fight and Delinquent) and Gabriel Rush (Moonrise Kingdom and No Letting Go). Like Colletti and Garza, both Zajur and Rush are effectively great in their character roles as Stella’s close and only two friends.
Others young characters include actors Austin Abrams (Paper Towns and The Kings of Summer) as local high school bully Tommy Milner and actress Natalie Ganzhorn (Make It Pop and The Stanley Dynamic) as Chuck’s older sister Ruth Steinberg. While all are played with enough believable nuances and acting talents, the only downside (for all the young characters in the movie) is that most of them do fall into somewhat high school clichés of sorts (i.e. the wisecracker, the wallflower loner, the logical one, the older sister, the jock bully etc.). Of course, it fits the narrative perfectly, but still a common cliché of teenagers nonetheless.
With the movie heavily focusing on its younger cast members, the film’s supporting cast of characters are kept to a minimal, mostly with several of the Bellows family members (minorly shown) and Sarah Bellows herself, who is played by actress Kathleen Pollard (Young Badlands and Designated Survivor). That being said, actor Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption and Jett) does make for good fit as the town’s Police Chief Turner and actor Dean Norris (The Book of Henry and Breaking Bad) is perfect as Stella’s single father Roy Nicholls, who shares one beautiful heavy-hitting scene with Colletti’s Stella. Lastly, as more of a applaud of acknowledgement, Javier Botet, Troy James, and Mark Steger do an effective wholesome job in selling their portrayals of the film’s various monsters….in a very practical and scary way.
You don’t just read the book…. the book reads you as the tales of Sarah Bellows come to life in the movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Director André Øvredal’s latest film sees Schwartz’s acclaimed YR anthology come to life (with an original story to several of them together) to create an effective cinematic scary tale. While some of the narrative elements could’ve been ironed out and some of the CGI effects could’ve been better handled, the film itself is worth the trip; finding Øvredal’s direction solid, multiple scares of the movie’s practical effects, and its small but effective young cast. While some of the narrative elements could’ve been ironed out better (the screenplay could’ve been more refined), the movie’s horror nuances definitely work and do play to the film’s strength as well as the small yet strong cast, and Øvredal’s capable direction. Personally, I liked it….and like I said before…. I’m not much a fan of horror movies. Yes, there were a few bumps that didn’t get wrinkled out (mostly in the narrative department), but I really enjoyed this movie…and (to me) found it to be scarier than some of the recent “run-of-the-mill” horror features that Hollywood has been putting out of late. Thus, I would say that my recommendation for the film would be a “recommended” one, especially tweens who want to get into more of the horror movie genre, but without all the bloody and gore. Even adult fans of the horror films will find Scary Stories to their liking as the feature offers plenty of spooky thrills throughout. In the end, while the movie’s ending leaves the tale open for a possible sequel, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will surely delight horror moviegoers everywhere; showcasing an engaging (and entertainment) feature that offers scares, thrills, and intrigue within the mystery of Sarah Bellows’s book and the sinister tales found within.
Also, a personal side note, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is my 450th movie review since I’ve started blogging. A personal milestone for me and for Jason’s Movie Blog. Anyways…thank you to my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers. I couldn’t have done it without you!!!
4.1 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: August 9th, 2019
Reviewed On: August 19th, 2019
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is 111 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for terror / violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references