Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light!

When my class had library periods in elementary school, back in the late nineties/early 2000’s, there was one book series that had a waiting list – the Scary Stories books by Alvin Schwartz. Whispers of the terrifying stories and the even more petrifying illustrations (by Stephen Gammel) rippled rampantly through my peers, with many claiming that they had trouble sleeping at night after reading such creepy tales.

When I finally got my hands on the books they did not disappoint, and many of the stories – and legendary artwork – have stuck in my mind and sent shivers down my spine years and years afterward. So when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation, produced by Guillermo del Toro, I was hoping to see the monsters from my childhood come to life.

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_film_logoSet in a small Pennsylvania town in the fall of 1968, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark follows a group of teenagers who accidentally incur the wrath of the spectral Sarah Bellows after removing her book of “scary stories” from the basement of a haunted house on Halloween night. They must find a way to appease Sarah, or become the stars of their own scary stories…with less than pleasant endings.

Since the original books are more or less anthologies featuring ghost stories, cautionary tales, and folklore, the film isn’t a straight-up adaptation. Instead, references are peppered throughout an over-arcing narrative that has been constructed for the film, and many of the most memorable “monsters” and stories make appearances with clear inspiration from Gammel’s original artwork. It’s a decision that works well, because fans of the books get to see characters like “Harold” and experience some of the best tales, with some fresh twists, while the unfamiliar can follow along without feeling lost.

The film employs familiar tropes connected to the horror genre – jump scares, a jarring neck snap or two, straw-spewing, the usual – but it manages to balance telling a well-paced story for the uninitiated while also aiming to please fans of the books. The music builds tension where it needs to without being overwhelming, which can be difficult in films where sound is so critical to the atmosphere. 

The plot – a group of teens aiming to appease a vengeful spirit of sorts or face untimely or maybe even slightly comical deaths – isn’t unfamiliar, but it works, mainly because it never tries to break the boundary and veer into “too much” territory. The cast function like a slightly more sinister version of the Scooby Doo crew, and though some receive more development than others, it’s easy to feel and empathize with the characters as their lives spiral into chaos and their friends start dropping like flies. Sure, the film doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of horror. It’s not Hereditary, or Get Out, or A Quiet Place. But it doesn’t have to be – and it’s easy, while watching it, to forget that certain features and characters are gleaned from a series of books intended for children.

Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not super scary, earning a PG-13 rating. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump in my seat a few times, and I’m not easily swayed by the genre, so even if it is a bit tamer than horror films with a higher rating, it can definitely frighten children and might lead to some sleepless nights, though fans of the books may be more affected by the scares than others. Seriously… The Pale Lady was terrifying in the book, and she’s just as scary onscreen, especially knowing that she was created using practical effects. 

If a spooky night at the theater is what you’re after, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a solid choice – not too scary, not too long, and not too much.

Overall rating: 8/10

Best Picture Countdown #7: Get Out

“I mean, I told you not to go in that house…”Lil Rel Howery as Rod Williams, Get Out (2017)

Dir: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener
Runtime: 1hr43min
Rating: R

Get Out follows black photographer Chris Washington (Kaluuya) as he goes on a weekend trip to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose (Williams). But as he spends time with her family and their affluent, somewhat bizarre friends, Chris discovers that this visit might involve more than he bargained for.

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_OutJordan Peele impresses in his directorial debut – some shots and sequences in this film are downright Kubrickian in atmosphere and scope, especially the basement scenes. I felt tense just watching the interactions of the characters and the various uncomfortable and downright creepy situations. The screenplay is also unique and features an original plot with fresh twists; this doesn’t feel like a story that’s been told a thousand times, a pitfall that plagues so many films in the same genre. It features realistic horrors with a surreal twist, amplifying genuine situations through a horror-based lens, thus keeping the film grounded and making it feel real. Obviously, the film also contains a relevant and timely social commentary that feels both refreshing and necessary, especially for a film of this genre. It also is the type of film that keeps the viewer guessing; I kept trying to figure out how all the visual hints (deer antlers, anyone?) and the little cues in the dialogue were going to lead up to some kind of big reveal, and was not disappointed in the least as the plot fell into place.

The acting is great all around, but especially Kaluuya as Chris. The hypnotism scenes in particular, where he displays genuine terror and helplessness, make the stakes feel brutally intense. Overall, Kaluuya portrays the everyday sort of protagonist that is easy to root for and relate to, as he is refreshingly capable and reasonable – not the type of horror film character who makes stupid decisions and more or less deserves to be chainsawed in the face or whatever. I definitely wanted him to GET OUT, one might say – but, though his stellar performance earned an Oscar nod, I don’t think he’ll be able to edge out the competition. Allison Williams also turns in an excellent performance, and Lil Rel Howery, playing the most likable TSA agent of all time, supplies enough laughs to weave levity into the plot.

Admittedly, I’m not a horror person, so I likely wouldn’t have seen this film if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture. Keep your Jasons and your Michael Myerses and your Freddies away from me. But Get Out is horror done right, and done well – though if you seek out horror movies for outlandish scenarios, absurd monsters, and escapism, this isn’t the film for you. I did find myself wishing this film were a bit longer, with more layers to the characters and the story, and deeper exploration into the history of the Armitage family – but simultaneously, I think the lighter exposition is a strength, as it would be all too easy for the film to go overboard with the explanations and make the plot drag. The screenplay is a triumph; Get Out feels like an elongated Twilight Zone episode, with enough subtly terrifying moments and jarring twists that force the viewer to think through and analyze each instance of discomfort and fear.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Peele take home the gold for his screenplay or his directing, but the competition is going to be fierce, and the same goes for all the other awards this film is up for. But even if it doesn’t emerge victorious on March 4th, Get Out was a well-deserved success for all involved, and I look forward to seeing future projects from Kaluuya and Peele.

Oscar Nominations
Best Director (Peele)
Best Original Screenplay (Peele)
Best Actor (Kaluuya)
Best Picture