Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz are some of the most controversial and well-known books of all time. The art of Stephen Gammell is infamous while the stories have been told and retold. The Scary Stories adaptation is one of the most anticipated movies of the year, but can it live up to the legacy of the books?
Horror anthologies are incredibly popular. It would make sense for Scary Stories to be an anthology. There is a backlog of memorable stories to choose from. Picking three or four to make a movie seems easy enough. The Scary Stories movie does this-kind of. The film is set in Pennsylvania in 1968. A group of teenagers enter a haunted house and find a secret room with a mysterious book. It seems simple from that point. They read a series of stories which the movie cuts too. All the while, there is some sort of wraparound story involving the haunted house.
The trailers have shown Scary Stories does use some of the familiar tales from the books. However, they directly involve and affect the movie’s characters. There is something of an overarching story, but it is intertwined within the movie. Unlike other anthologies, there are no bumpers between the segments. This anthology lite approach does not always work out, unfortunately.
The stories the movie uses are well done. The creative team picked some of the most well known tales. The initial selling point may have been nostalgia, but the stories are strong enough to impress those who have never read them. Whether it is reminding the audience the dangers of popping pimples or employing simple gross out tactics using a mystery stew, Scary Stories does leave an impression.
The question is how long does the effect last? Scary stories uses basic jump scares to build the tension. The plot also moves along briskly since the friends tend to solve every mystery immediately. Some will enjoy both of these tactics. After all, the movie is based on stories that are four to five pages. The plot mirrors the short stories of the books perfectly. Others will think this is silly since there is no real sense of danger. Shocking more than scary, sometimes the movie seem to be telling its audience to be afraid instead of making them feel afraid.
The pseudo wraparound story is the weakest part of Scary Stories. Quite simply, it is not engaging. Despite the hectic pace and dire consequences, there does not seem to be a sense of urgency. These moments feel more like filler than a proper transition between the material used from books. Characters make odd choices that seem to be done only to advance the plot. Things sort of meander between the actual good parts. There is also a tacked on subplot involving racism and what seems to be an anti-war message.
The hit and miss acting also negatively impacts Scary Stories. At its best, it can never be called good (though Austin Zajur has one of the best scared faces audiences will see this year). It is also difficult to tell if the acting is truly bad or if it is just a product of poor dialogue. This leads to unintended laughs even though the cast does a great job of playing teenagers. One thing is for certain: this is definitely a movie aimed at a younger audience. There is nothing wrong with this, but it also causes the film to lose some of the charm associated with the books.
The creatures are easily the highlight of the movie. As seen in the posters, Harold is a near exact replica of how he was drawn by Gammell. The Pale Lady also looks identical to her literary counterpart. The Jangly Man is arguably the most frightening monster in Scary Stories. The creatures is an original design by del Toro and looks fantastic. It is hard not to wonder what the Academy Award winning director’s take on the other creepier characters would have looked like.
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark movie has its moments. When the script sticks to the literary source material, it is an entertaining time that will excite and scare audiences. When it decides to go with its original material, the film becomes very tedious. The direction of the film is interesting and is unexpected but ultimately hinders the pacing. It is fine for nostalgia and younger audiences, but lacks any of the fun of the books.