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Friday, August 09, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Andre Ovredel's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark understands a simple truth - Kids love to be scared.  It has the feeling of an old fashioned ghost story, mixed with some elements of an 80s kids adventure film that is exciting in a lot of ways, a little genuinely creepy, and funny when it needs to be.  Anyone who grew up reading the series of books with the same name by Alvin Schwartz will probably find that this movie strikes the perfect tone, creating the vibe of a cinematic campfire story.

Best of all, this is a fairly low-tech campfire story.  A majority of the creature effects are practical and done with make up, rather than CG, which is featured, but sparingly.  As someone who has fond memories of the illustrations by Stephen Gammell that brought to life Schwartz's twisted tales, it was a real treat to see some of Gammell's designs recreated with detailed physical creature designs.  Fortunately, you don't have to have read the books to enjoy this.  This is largely an original story dreamed up by a team of writers and story people headed by Guillermo del Toro, who occasionally pay tribute to some of the stories that were featured in the books like "Harold", "The Big Toe", and "The Red Spot".  It tells a simple and effective yarn about the power of storytelling, while bringing the stories and creatures within into the real world.  I guess it could be compared to 2015's Goosebumps film in some way, only much less tongue in cheek, and more of a great introductory horror film for older kids and teens interested in the genre.

The plot kicks off as it should, on Halloween night - 1968, to be exact.  A group of misfit teens decide to have some fun by breaking into a boarded up old mansion that is believed to be haunted, and has a sinister connection to the history of the town where they live.  The leader of the kids is the sweet and shy Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a lonely girl with a single father who has aspirations of being a writer.  Stella is obsessed with monsters (many of her movie favorites line the walls of her room in posters), as are her friends, including the nerdy Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and the smart-mouthed Chuck (Austin Zajur).  The trio of friends are joined by Ramon (Michael Garza), a teenage drifter who is hanging around the town, and helps the kids escape from some bullies before they make their expedition into the obviously haunted mansion.

The home in question once belonged to the wealthy Bellows family, who had a daughter named Sarah that they supposedly kept locked away in a secret room.  The young Sarah was supposedly connected to the disappearances and possible murders of some of the local children, and when she became persecuted by both her family and the town, she took her own life.  The kids naturally stumble upon Sarah's old hideaway room, and find a book of creepy stories within that seem to be written in blood.  The book is apparently directly connected to Sarah's vengeful spirit, as when Stella removes the book from the home, the pages begin to have new stories appearing upon them built around Stella and her various friends.  As the stories start coming to life, and the kids start being hunted down by nightmarish creatures dreamed up by Sarah's imagination, Stella and her friends must find a way to stop it before they all disappear, much like the children from long ago did.

I can see older and jaded horror fans yawning at all of this, as Scary Stories doesn't really do anything new.  But, it still manages to be effective, thanks to how much of the film has been staged.  There are some individual moments here that really stand out, particularly the kids' encounters with the various monsters.  These manage to create just enough tension, while not being too scary for the kids that this movie is obviously aiming for.  There are some moments of humor here, and they are fortunately used to lighten the mood now and then when needed, rather than lessening the tension.  The filmmakers know when to be scary, and just how far they should go to draw in their young audience.  It's a delicate balancing act, and this movie pulls it off.  It manages to create tension and put the kids in some real danger, while not resorting to exploitative or overly gory means. 

This is also kind of a beautiful film, using its fall small town setting to the fullest, and adding some clever nods to the time period it's set in thanks to TV and movie clips, as well as music from the era. (The film opens with a wonderful montage introducing us to all the main characters set to "Season of the Witch".) And like I said, the practical monster effects that emphasize make up and costumes, and only use CG when needed, are beautifully constructed and faithful to the original illustrations from the books.  This is something that might be lost on younger audiences, but to me, it was thrilling, and I admire that the film gave us enough time with these creatures so that I could admire their design and the effort that went into them.  The young cast also do a good job here, with young Zoe Margaret Colletti being a great lead, creating a likable and sympathetic performance.

Much like the original books, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is almost certain to connect with young kids and preteens who want to dip their toes into the horror genre without going in too deep.  I would welcome these filmmakers and this cast returning to the books again.  They have a knack for understanding what made them appealing to kids in the first place, and properly bringing it to life on the screen.

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