Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Is Wasted Potential
There was a lot of expectation for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The books that the film is based on were among some of the most popular children’s novels in the ‘80s. Alvin Schwartz made a legacy by authoring the nightmares of children around the world, and Stephen Gammell brought them to life with his ghoulish illustrations.
The potential for an adaptation of this horror anthology was huge, so when it was announced that Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro had been tapped to co-write and co-produce the film, fans of the books (now adults) were adequately pumped for it to come out. Then, Andre Ovredal of The Autopsy of Jane Doe signed on as the director, which seemed to only validate the hype in the horror lovers scene.
With a powerhouse of auteurs known for creating thought-provoking and thrilling films, it’s only right that the bar was set high. But that only meant they had further to fall if the film didn’t live up to the hype.
And it didn’t.
Think Goosebumps meets Halloween. The film incites some laughter and a couple of scares, but it missed the mark on the ultimate measure of a horror film: Its ability to keep you up at night.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the book series, reached its level of infamy for its ability to scare the shit out of kids who managed to get their hands on the paperbacks. It was so bad some libraries across the United States banned the books, outraged by the uncensored murder, cannibalism, and downright disturbing subject matter. What made the books truly creepy was each story was based on an urban legend, implying that each story possessed a level of truth to it. The books were re-released in 2011 with less creepy illustrations in an attempt to tone down the horror factor of the series. But no amount of filtering could reduce the creepy factor of each story.
Suffice to say, the film failed to capture that. The film attempts to tie five of the creepiest stories from the anthology (Harold, The Big Toe, The Red Spot, The Dream, and Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!) into one linear story that follows a group of teenagers in a small town in 1968. The kids, led by fearless (and sometimes clueless) horror writer Stella, find a book in a haunted house that writes the stories that will end their lives. The concept is fascinating and makes for quality horror material, but how it’s carried out is another matter altogether.
The film will definitely have the hair on the back of your neck stand up at some of the best, scariest scenes, but the horror factor isn’t enough to balance out the bland, corny storytelling. The fault lies in its reliance on monsters to keep the story going. It almost works.
In this film, the horror is in the details. The live-action reimagining of some of the worst nightmares from the series is enough to make you look away. Harold the Scarecrow, the Toe Monster, the Pale Lady, the Jangly Man—each one is given justice in its visual portrayals. Their appearances on screen save the film from being a total failure, but their treatment when they’re not on screen is the problem. The nightmares, the urban legends, the terror these stories incite—these were the core of the horror anthology, yet they’re treated merely as plot devices for Stella to save the day. The film doesn’t offer much in the character department—there’s not enough depth given to each character for us to grow attached to them.
The film is formulaic: There’s a stereotypical mean jock bully (who naturally dies first), a goofy best friend with a hot older sister (who is naturally dating the jock), a mysterious handsome stranger who strolls into town, and a quirky female lead who wants to be a writer.
On the night of Halloween, the kids are running away from the bully and stumble into a haunted house. Of course, they decide it’s a good idea to go inside a haunted house in the middle of the night and, against better judgment, go into the creepy dark basement of the haunted house. And of course, there is a hidden door, a music box, and a creepy book—that’s written in blood.
It doesn’t help that some other story elements go largely unexplained, like how Sarah, the original owner of the book, managed to conjure up the ability to make the stories come true. And where Stella’s dead friends ended up. This is the sort of mundane writing we have to deal with to reach the real horror moments of the movie.
In typical Guillermo fashion, there are subtle political undertones in the film that are sure to raise eyebrows. One smart quip, “If it’s in the newspaper, it has to be true,” targets the current state of the media. The film also puts the spotlight on the racism faced by Latin Americans, which is timely given the family separations occurring at the border of the U.S. and Mexico. There’s even a nod at white supremacy when the camera pans to a Nixon campaign poster.
But it is the moral of the story that somehow saves the film. It’s noted, more than once, how “stories hurt and stories heal,”—it’s not subtle in its delivery, but the message somehow manages to take root in the minds of viewers. Given our political climate, on social media and in real life, the message hits closer to home more than one might think: Sometimes, the stories we write, whether true or not, become other people’s nightmares.
If only it is as successful in delivering the other aspects of a horror film. The mark of a good horror film is if it will make you feel overwhelmed, not underwhelmed, after leaving the cinema. Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun, average horror film that lost the essence of what makes scary stories, well, scary.