I've lived through nearly 28 Halloweens in my lifetime. I got this!
Scary Source Materials to Read When Young
In all honesty, my recollection of the original writings that this film is based upon is extremely vague at best. With that said, I do remember reading and enjoying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark quite a bit as a kid. In terms of specifics, they have faded deep into the darkened depths of my mind. However, they still hold a fond memory in my heart as they were likely an early stepping stone in horror for me. From the sounds of its reputation, I am not alone in this admiration.
A small disclaimer before I start my review, if anyone is looking for any form of comparison between the original books and this film adaptation, I am sorry to say that this review is not what you are looking for. I will be judging the movie strictly on its own merits and not that of its source material. Hopefully that does not deter any potential readers. If so, whoops!
Halloween Growing Near
Halloween is undoubtedly one of my favorite holidays of the year. Don’t believe me? I recently wrote an entire article about basically the cream of the crop when it comes to what I believe is the very best Halloween films of all time. So I won’t lie when I say that this movie adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, more or less, hit a soft spot for myself. My weakness is being rather easily appeased by spooky, twisted, and weird tales that revolve around All Hallows Eve with a mid-western setting and a visual vibe that is clearly smack dab in the middle of Autumn. All points that Scary Stories hits a bullseye on. This is the type of flick I grew up watching and adoring around this time of year. A collection of all things creepy in an edgier family picture that is perfect for the month of October.
Taking place on Halloween 1968, a night when an introverted girl and her friends discover a terrifying journal by a woman who became the town’s morbid urban legend. Filled with scary stories, some of which being newly written by the spirit that once possessed this notebook. These new stories tell the devastating fates of Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her misfit friends. Will they be able to put an end to this curse before it’s too late or will they be another addition to the doomed stories written on these evil pages?
Story & Structure
When looking at a general consensus of the film, I learned that most would agree they would have preferred an anthology movie akin to George A. Romero’s Creepshow or even Trick ‘r Treat. Personally, I didn’t mind the traditional film format where there is one continuous storyline that incorporates numerous elements of the separate short stories. For the most part, everything flows at a fairly natural and brisk pace as each short story was given a vignette for our protagonists to face against as the nightmares unfolded.
Narratively speaking, this feels somewhat of a combination between Stephen King’s IT, Goosebumps (2015), ParaNorman, and pretty much any modern horror movie where a small group of youths come across a sinister supernatural entity trying to kill them as it leads down an investigation into the tragic backstory of the antagonist. When the trope is done well, such as in Scary Stories, it turns out an effective horror piece. When it doesn’t work, we get stuff like Ouija or Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare. Thank God that didn’t happen this time around!
While the characters are certainly nothing new by any means, they are still all very likable and played charismatically by the entire cast. With our lead actors, I’m relatively unfamiliar with the bulk of their filmographies, but I was delighted to see how terrifically they all handled themselves in their respective roles. Zoe Margaret Colletti is basically the lead protagonist of the group, playing the shy girl with aspirations of one day being a writer who gets singled out by certain town bullies. For my own introduction to this young actress, she did an exceptional job and performed perfectly when it came to the more emotional arcs for her character. In fact, everyone did a great job and I would be more than excited to see these actors in future productions.
My favorite character, the one that I easily see myself being if I ever found myself in a horror movie come to life, would definitely be that of Chuck played by Austin Zajur. This is a bit of the chuckleheaded character who has a tendency to bring out the humor in a terrifying situation. Attempting to inject sensibility against ghostly figures that make no sense in reality, while also having genuinely funny reactions to the intense circumstances that surround him. I, more often than not, got a good laugh out of him when he had a one-liner of some sort to crack in the middle of the spooky happenings. With a character such as Chuck, the tone can really go south in being utterly broken by a specific character’s humor if it clashes too drastically against the elements of horror. Luckily, I had no problem with that here, although that could also be my own personal tastes as well. However, when the movie needed to be suspenseful, it succeeded. Then when it needed a lighter touch of dialog, he stepped in only when necessary. If Chuck turned into a standup comedian halfway through the movie, constantly spewing out jokes at ill-timed suspense driven scenes, then I would have had more of a problem with his character. As it stands, he was an enjoyable highlight in a delectably dark picture.
Ups & Downs With the World Around
My only gripes with the characters is that I yearned for more development from the majority of players on screen. Not to say the actors did anything wrong in their performances, but rather there were select secondary character devices in the script that I would have loved to have seen delved deeper into. Unfortunately they were very briefly introduced while taking a backseat to the main plot. For instance, Stella’s backstory about having a mother whom abandoned her and her father comes into play for all of maybe two whole minutes’ worth of screen time. Initially this started our characters off in an intriguing relationship with the unsteady father-daughter dynamic that I was interested to see where this thread would lead. Really, at the end of the day, if that detail was completely edited out of the picture there would be practically no difference to the overall narrative.
Same can probably be said for other aspects pertaining to the political climate of 1968 that is touched upon throughout the runtime; such as the draft that forcefully enlisted people into joining the army during the Vietnam War, racism amongst the small town justice system, the election for President Richard Nixon, etc. Elements that don’t add much in terms of plot and probably could have been cut out and nothing would be missing for the story. Admittedly though, I did grow an immense appreciation for all of these finer details as it did add to the world building of when our protagonists lived in our own world history. Even though they could have been cut out, I’m glad that they weren’t.
There is a bit of a popular trope currently in cinema to include a bully character that is a borderline sociopath, this movie is no different; IT: Chapter One, Shazam!, Stranger Things, among other titles have been guilty of this specific cliché. As I mentioned previously with other movie tropes, when it works then it works wonders and when it doesn’t it can be distracting. My problem wasn’t so much that this bully was distracting, more that I wanted more of him because of how intimidating actor Austin Abrams was performing in the role. Sadly, this bully is written out of the movie by the time the first act is up. Which was frankly disappointing as I could see something suspenseful being done with his character in at least the climax. A wasted opportunity with massive potential, squandered before the story could even get rolling.
No horror movie is complete without its own collection of unique monsters, right?! Let me say that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has some fantastically creepy ghouls to marvel at. Seriously, the designs and even the unnerving backstories on some of these new movie creatures are actually rather innovative. It was a blast watching these nightmarish entities torment our protagonists and resulted in some really imaginative horror sequences that I relished watching. Throughout the film, these entities come to life through the diabolical stories being written into a witch’s book; one involves an evil scarecrow, another is a decomposing corpse with certain remains that have been severed from the body, a large pale woman that saunters slowly towards her victims and appearing from all angles until closing in, spiders that erupt from flesh, and an urban legend known as the Jangly Man who’s body has been entirely twisted up as he breaks apart and puts himself back together. They are fantastic as every vignette that centers on each individual monster is highly suspenseful and well-crafted with a solid blend of CGI and practical effects.
The issue being that, like other aspects mentioned prior, I wish that there was more. Every one of these tragic ghouls could have an entire feature length film dedicated to them with a terrific amount of scary promise. Ultimately though, they all roughly receive about five minutes or so of screen time each before they vanish from the picture, never to be seen again. Which is a shame as these were exciting depictions of physical terrors I haven’t seen too much of in recent years. Leaving me wanting more, but not in necessarily the best way. Rather an unfulfilled manner that results in an empty feeling by the time the credits roll. Not to say that makes this movie bad or anything, not at all. There were simply narrative opportunities that I would have preferred seeing if given the chance.
The Twisting End
Do not be alarmed, I promise not to spoil any of the third act. No specifics, but I must state that I was kind of underwhelmed by the closing minutes of the film. Again, not bad, but not delivering the punch that I was hoping for. Especially when the screenplay was alluding to a potential dark twist that the story may have originally been aiming for. Then it turns out to not go in the direction I had anticipated, settling for a more optimistic epilogue instead. I won’t go so far as to say that I hated or even disliked the ending, only that I was crossing my fingers for something a tad darker than what was given. Then again, I can’t get too mad at a film attempting to instill hope in the viewer after such a dreary journey.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark earns the PG-13 rating, and I mean that in a good way as opposed to the generic horror that feels watered down to avoid the R rating. There is some disturbing and genuinely unsettling imagery here, respecting its younger audience in not shying away from more mature content and graphic visuals. This harkens back to 1980s PG with titles like Something Wicked This Way Comes, where there is some adult writing in its themes and dialog, as well as some relative gore effects too. For any parents who believe that their child may be too young or incapable of handling such material, then maybe skip this one in the Halloween marathon. On the other hand, if a parent is confident that of their children joining in on this thrilling ride with minimal issues then by all means have fun! Please do not be the parent that lets their kids watch this movie and then blame the filmmakers/studios for allowing them to watch this when it was your own fault. That is a major pet peeve of mine when parents refuse to take responsibility over their own actions. Quit that!
While not exactly perfect, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark feels perfect for this time of year as the Fall sets in and Halloween is only days away. With or without kids, this movie is a genuinely spooky rollercoaster ride with blood-curdling scenes of imaginative hauntings. Even though when it came to the writing of character lacking slightly, the movie still provided an entertaining experience that’s just right to get into the mood for all things creepy-crawly. Check this one out if it fancies your interest!
Favorite Scary Story
That’s All Folks!
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark… A solid addition to the Halloween seasonal flicks. What do you think though? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Wish a scarecrow would disembowel me? That’s rude. Comment down below and let me know! Also, if you so happened to have enjoyed my review then please do me a favor and share this article around the social media world. Thank you all so much for reading and have yourselves a scary day! Happy Halloween!!
© 2019 John Plocar