An adaptation that gets there the long way, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark delivers on what it promises, (copious fake) warts and all. The ideas of author Alvin Schwartz are there, along with the integral illustrations of Stephen Gammel (and none of that 2011 reprint, watered down, Brett Helquist horseshit). And as ever, it’s an uneven mix of memorably morbid entertainment and thin, shoulda-been-edited bits that somehow still amounts to something deserving of fond recollection.
Given the book’s horror short story collection format, it would make sense for its adaptation to take the shape of an anthology, à la V/H/S. Oddly, producer Guillermo del Toro and his story co-writers instead go the route of every other teen horror since Nightmare on Elm Street: these kids have unleashed some kind of curse or whatever, and now they’re all doomed to die in some supernatural way. That fate here takes the semi-meta route of a book of—mhm!—scary stories. An archetypical group of losers, all bullied by a weirdly sociopathic jock, investigate a likewise archetypical haunted house, swiping a large, handwritten tome from its dungeon basement. Soon enough, new tales start appearing on the pages—written in blood, natch—fortelling all the weird and gruesome ways they’re lined up to die.
Though Scary Stories was first published from 1981 to 1991, the film eschews following up the small town ‘80s teen loser phenomena of Stranger Things and It by needlessly being set in 1968. The decision misplaces the book’s nostalgia, but even more bafflingly, it also adds a repeatedly vocalized re-contextualization that makes the events a foreground to the election of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and anti-immigrant racism. Sure, it has some modern parallels, but few to none of them also parallel the movie as a whole. Whatever the six writers involved were trying to offhandedly say politically gets across about as much as Schwartz’s Scary Story severed head that just kept screaming “Me-Tie-Dough-Ty-Walker,” and leaves its audience just as likely mad. (There’s also a mother-daughter abandonment subplot that goes absolutely nowhere.)
That Me-Tie-Etcetera guy’s in here, by the way, along with the likes of well-remembered classics Harold the Scarecrow, the weirdly plump pale lady of The Dream, the lady who wants The Toe back, and the girl who has spiders erupt from her face. Their reverence to Gammel’s indelible illustrations ranges from dead-on (that pale lady, holy shit), to coposited (Me-Tie-Dough-Ty-Walker freak is actually a wretched merger of a few Gammel drawings, and the better for it), to nearly antithetical (Spider-Woman of The Red Spot has gone from a melted Shelley Duvall to a Midwest beauty queen).
Their on-screen debuts are undeniably effective, though, the format allowing Trollhunter director André Øvredal to grab from a cornucopia of horrors. With evenly creepy effectiveness, he’s crammed the genuinely nail-biting (technically, toenail-biting, in this case), the viscerally painful, and the flat-out revoltingly weird in there. Plus, there’s the horror of war, of course. Vietnam. For some reason.
Unfortunately, what Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark lends to genre filmmaking in set-piece diversity it drains from its title, leaving it less actual SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK.
Half the draw of the book series was the notion of it being filled with campfire yarns, urban legends that are of course ridiculous—but what if they’re real??? And relegating its flash fiction to the workings of some goofy book really cuts into that effectiveness. Sure, it’s crazy when the guy dies by acupuncture in Final Destination 5, but if you read that such a thing happened on Reddit or something, then you’re thinking, “Yeah, that’s definitely a made-up story that couldn’t happen. Yet now I’m never getting acupuncture, jussssst in case.”
In the end, it’s both an elevation and bastardization of the material. Still, though, damned if its vision of The Dream doesn’t up the nightmare of doughy, lumbering, lifeless-eyed, stringy-haired women approaching from every corridor. You’ll leave the theater to never hit Walmart again.
Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Studio: CBS Films
Runtime: 108 minutes
Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint