Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark

Directed By Andre Ovredal

Starring – Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush

The Plot – It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah (Colletti), a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time-stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.

Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, adult language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.

POSITIVES

– Immersive set designs. Sometimes the balance between dim lighting and background decoration establishes a level of atmosphere that perfectly sets the mood for what’s to come, and in this regard, Mill Valley is the seventh circle of hell for all of its nightmares being played out in real time. Beyond this feeling like just hollow backgrounds used for tension amplification, the gothic style sets and props interact with each of the characters wonderfully, and create an air of weight within the shots that document their subtle influence to the dynamic of each conflict. A fine example of this is the dreaded Red Room scene, where a character is running from a slow, methodical stalker, and uses each hospital hallway as a manner to buy time. All the while, Ovredal as a director is diminishing the distance between them with each scene’s edit, creating a juxtaposition between he and his characters that use these locations as a gimmick that is every bit as terrifying as the monster that chases our protagonists.

– Respects the source. Reading these books as a kid, the nightmare imagery had a lasting effect on me that very few other books have had since, and because of this, I am happy to report that this is a film that, despite its designated rating, gets almost everything correct. Beyond the imagery, the stories themselves are stitched together in a way that maintains the pressure inside of this terror, allowing very few moments of book-end breath that the movie doesn’t allow audiences. It has such an immense task to retread those legendary tales, and does so while maintaining the tinsel of big screen magic and acceptable horror cliches that really lifts these events from the pages vibrantly, and does so to a degree of even character movement shifts in the scene being documented in the very same way it’s told from its literary origins. The imagery itself is very tense and unsettling, and this feeling of overwhelming dread envelopes our characters whole, and leaves them feeling miles far from the world they once knew.

– Tonal maturity. During the first act of the film, the screenplay’s goofy and immature tone had me fearing that this would be another “Goosebumps” movie, but in the vein of “Trick R Treat”, this too is a film that progresses smoothly, and earns its big cost consequences with a second act that transforms this world and characters accordingly. In this respect, to label this as a kids-acceptable horror film might be a bit of a stretch. Despite the overall lack of blood or deaths being free from audience eyes, Ovredal’s manner of exceeding tension and drawing out the slow-burn of what is chasing these kids in the distance is something that proves right away that this is no “Stranger Things”, where everybody in the group is safe as long as they have a starring role. There are real consequences in this film, and a sense of enveloping dread that is being consistently stirred by the man in charge, and all of his devastating tracking spots.

– Combination of special effects. I loved the balance between live action and computer generated effects, both of which worked together so smoothly without ever stepping on the toes of the other. The make-up and prosthetics work here delivers on some truly creepy monster designs, and the computer generation instilled upon their movements give them a surreal reminder that these are anything but human reincarnations. There wasn’t a single example where the effects seemed hollow or lacking of inspiration, and considering most of the film is done during nighttime scenes, the lack of light preserved an ominous level of mystery, free from the lines of dimensions that usually take me out of generated properties.

– As a period piece. One surprising aspect for me was the underlying tension developed from a 1968 setting, during the inauguration of Richard Nixon, which perfectly articulated the paranoia of the Vietnam era. Aside from the noticeable comparisons that Nixon’s campaign has to our current day Trumpian age, the screenplay hints at a home world falling apart because of never-ending war playing such a heavy slug on our conscience, including a character who is later revealed to have a bigger role than we initially thought in said engagement. What’s even more important is the production and aesthetic value is serene in giving us a glimpse into seamless fashion trends, and a groovy soundtrack that perfectly articulates the birth of the flower power generation, sampling tracks that play hand-in-hand with the very beats of character introductions and hangout hijinks.

– Scare factor. I’ve always said that once you hit adulthood, being scared in films is kind of a thing of the past, but with that said, “Scary Stories” is probably the closest that we will get to this rare circumstance in 2019. There is creepy imagery gallore in this film, not just with the monsters, who are bone-chilling in design and movements, but also with the gross-out humor, which will certainly never allow me to eat beef stew ever again. I do wish the film didn’t rely as heavily on unnatural jump scares to sell its execution, because Ovredal certainly has the tools of the trade for maximizing tension, and if he had more faith in his terrifying visuals, I feel like the film would prosper in captivating audiences in the same vein that the novels did. With that aside, the film is still an unsettling sit, and will definitely give you 103 minutes of horror hysteria as a treat to get us through to Halloween.

– Stirring sentimentality. Exploring depths of storytelling in a way very few other films do, “Scary Stories” is a film that commends authors everywhere as both a healing and harming force in the vein of grieving. The film explains throughout that words are used by us to sometimes put a face on something as cryptic or uncertain as death, giving the pen holders the power on settling the longing of our pasts. This gave the film a glowing radiance to its tragedy that I wasn’t expecting, and proved that it values people as the trail-blazers to their own pasts, present, and future. People often ask me why typed reviews are still the way to go, and for me personally it’s in the therapeutic permanence that they preserve in shelling out the thoughts and words that I will live by for a lifetime. “Scary Stories” better helped capture that ideal, and gave me poignancy long after I left the film.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of characterization. With the exception of the main girl, I didn’t feel a thing for any of these characters. Blame it on their immature personalities, or the overall lack of screen time dedicated to accentuate their colorful backstories, but I wasn’t sold by them, and couldn’t care less each time one of them was shuffled off-screen. The screenplay feels this too, as the characters with the least amount of exposition die in order, from least to most, making each of their results as predictable as a mixed weather pattern in Ohio. If you don’t believe me, make a list of the five main characters, and write down what you learned about each one of them. You’ll find yourself describing their appearances more than anything, mainly because the film doesn’t care about what makes them tick.

– Plot convenience. I find it interesting that the group always has to be separated for these stories to work. In addition to this, the characters never try to outrun or dodge their opposition, leaving them as easy meals for their predators. In addition to this, the kids never go to the authorities or anyone who could help to give a witness to the terror that Is transpiring, leaving them vulnerable to exploit. Even if it’s impossible for this object to be vanquished, show us that they are continuously trying for the sake of vulnerability or desperation. To me, this antagonist is only as strong as she is because this group couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag, and during an era when horror movie characters are trying to think of anything to lessen the impact of their opposition, “Scary Stories” prefers to pretend these options don’t exist from real HUMAN characters.

– Anti-climatic ending. This film ended at just the right time for me, as the final ten minutes of the movie tie itself in an inconsequential bow that left so much of the momentum unfulfilled. At the beginning of the girl’s dream, I really enjoyed what the script was setting up for itself, in how it compared her situation to that of Sarah’s, but the sharp detour that wraps the conflict up is something that feels like a copout to this movie for how it replicates other films that not only used this ending, but did a whole lot better. The closing moments also have the guts to set itself up for a sequel, which despite my enjoyment of this film, I would prefer not to have because this ending tried to prove to us the things that we already knew, and then tried to sell it as the epiphany needed to make matters right.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

3 thoughts on “Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark

  1. I was a huge fan of the books as a kid especially at sleep overs and we would read these in the back yard at night. I’m glad to see the movie provides the “creepy” effects that are familiar from the book. I enjoy that it has more of a scare factor than most films today. I’m happy to hear it wasn’t a total sham and the review flowed nicely which I’m sure is a challenge for this kind of film.

  2. Very well written review. I enjoyed learning about characterization and to honest never gave it much thought when watching a film.
    I also enjoyed your articulation regarding plot convenience.
    Your reviews make me see there is so much more to movies than I realize.
    Im intrigued by your review to see this one.
    You’re an amazing writer and I love you so much.

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