Monday, September 2, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

The small town of Mill Valley talks about the Bellow's legacy in whispers, of a successful family disappearing, deadly stories, imprisonment, and black magic. In 1968, Stella, her friends, and a stranger find themselves in the Bellow's supposedly haunted house where they dread up old memories and accidentally bring the stories to life. To survive, the teens have to delve into the past and dredge up the truth, which turns out to be much different than the rumors still told by the town.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of my many childhood obsessions. I remember chasing my brother around and reading him The Red Spot story that scared him so much. The surreal, almost tactile illustrations by Stephen Gammell enhance the stories and make the books especially memorable. A film adaptation is a dream come true for me, even as an adult. These books are a big reason why I'm such a huge horror fan today and it's exciting for this film to introduce more people to such a formative work for many.

The film features a larger narrative of Stella, her friends Auggie and Chuck, and a kind stranger Ramon as they fall victim to Sarah Bellow's scary stories. The characters are well drawn enough to service the story and get the audience to care about them. Stella and Ramon are the most detailed characters. Stella is still dealing with the guilt and pain of her mom abandoning her and Ramon doesn't want to share his brother's fate, who died in the Vietnam War. Their backstories, rooted in trauma, provide emotion to the film and anchor the story in reality. The other characters aren't quite as detailed, but they don't really need to be. The stories and creatures are what people are most excited for.

The stories are pretty faithful to the books and so are the creature designs. Seeing Gammell's art literally come to life in such a creepy way is so amazing. The missing toe corpse (portrayed by Javier Botet), the pale woman, the jangly man, and Harold the scarecrow are all well designed, creepy, and just a little different from their drawn counterparts.  There isn't much blood or gore, but the alternatives are more chilling. For instance, Tommy, a racist jock, is stabbed with a pitchfork and sprouts hay, eventually transforming into the scarecrow in his family's field. The pale woman was the scariest of the monsters because of the oppressive red lighting and the inability to escape her. She didn't even seem outwardly malicious, simply walking toward her victim, but she appeared in every room and hall. Each one is produced by a mixture of practical effects and digital effects that work well together. I am pleased with how they turned out and I would love to see other creatures from the books replicated by the same team.

** spoilers **

The frame story takes place in 1968, during Nixon's election. Real world problems are present in the story even though they ultimately take a back seat to the horror and fantasy. Many of the social and political events in the film reflect things happening today, such as corrupt corporations poisoning locals and blaming someone else and the current president empowering racists. It's an interesting point of view that makes the events feel closer to home. The main message of the film is to not believe the accepted narrative and dig deeper to find and expose the truth. Sarah and Lou Lou, Sarah's only friend and a black servant, are blamed for killing children with scary stories and witchcraft when it was actually the Bellow's paper mill bleeding mercury into the water. Like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Sarah transforms into an evil force after being blamed as an innocent and punishes the guilty. The kids make racist assumptions about Lou Lou when questioning her in the present and expose a harmful trope seen in many horror films of black people corrupting innocent white people. This film has surprising depth and feels relevant.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun, creepy film with fantastical and real world horror side by side. Being a PG-13 movie, the creatures can't be as horrific as some vocal adult fans would have liked, but I was impressed by the balance of scary and keeping the target audience in mind. The Scary Stories books are for children and I would have been disappointed if the original audience were excluded from the film. The ending is definitely open for a sequel and I hope to see another film with even more of the memorable creatures reproduced on the screen.

My rating: 8/10 fishmuffins