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'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' (2019) Review: Fishing for Turds

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

One of several theatrical one-sheet posters for, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."

One of several theatrical one-sheet posters for, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."

The Season of the Witch

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is probably considered the introduction to horror fiction for anyone who was in middle school in the mid to late 1990s. I distinctly remember checking out at least one of the books before I was a teenager, but the story that has stuck with me multiple decades later has and always will be, “The Red Spot.” The thing about the Scary Stories books is that they were just these random collections of creepy tales meant to make the reader anxious, uneasy, or even frightened, so the fact that somebody attempted to make a coherent film out of a jumbled mix of stories from all three books is kind of incredible.

The horror film directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) follows a group of teenagers in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania during Halloween in 1968. Stella (Zoe Colletti) is a die-hard fan of the horror genre, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is a bit too infatuated with girls for his own good, and Chuck (Austin Zajur) lives on candy and pranks when he’s not driving his older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) insane. They cross paths with a mysterious drifter named Ramon (Michael Garza) who joins the group seemingly out of boredom.

Austin Zajur and Mark Steger as Chuck Steinberg and The Pale Lady.

Austin Zajur and Mark Steger as Chuck Steinberg and The Pale Lady.

They initially use trick or treating as a front for revenge against local jock and full-time bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), which leads them to a condemned and rumored to be haunted house of the Bellows family. Sarah Bellows lived in isolation and dramatically killed herself because of her family. Sarah turned her devastating life into the inspiration for a series of terrifying stories. After Stella discovers the book Sarah wrote her stories in, strange things begin happening in Mill Valley and everyone in the Bellows house from that night becomes a target.

The monsters of the film attempt to be as explicitly accurate as possible to Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations from the Scary Stories books. This typically pays off, especially with Harold the Scarecrow and The Toe Monster but it seems to backfire with The Pale Lady. While she does still look like a living incarnation of Gammell’s artwork, the story has the weakest conclusion of the entire film. Scary Stories makes up for this by introducing The Jangly Man, who is seriously worth the price of admission alone even if you typically can’t understand a word that he says. The Jangly Man contorts his body in the most inhuman of ways, can separate all of his limbs from his torso, and has this bloodcurdling voice that rattles your insides. Be sure to check out how they created the monsters of the film.

There’s been an emphasis on the lack of a narrative in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. That may be true, but the film is based on a trilogy of books that is close to thirty years old and is supposed to be aimed at younger readers. The film adapts the stories in a way that isn’t totally successful, but it is surprisingly great at times. Despite some recognizable names in the supporting cast such as Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption), and Lorraine Toussaint (Orange is the New Black), the main cast is mostly filled with unknowns. Some reviews claim that the acting isn’t up to par, but I was pleasantly surprised. Austin Zajur can be annoying as the mischievous Chuck, but he was also rather humorous the majority of the time. Zoe Colletti goes a little overboard when she cries, but she’s also solid when she gushes over horror. Austin Abrams is seriously nasty as Tommy. He is always sweaty and has no remorse for anyone. He takes bullying to frightening heights.

I guess I expected the film to be corny (pun intended) with lame PG-13 kills and a cast that had no idea what they were doing. However, the film managed to make me a fan during the Harold segment. That surround sound in the cornfield is masterful with the wind blowing through corn stalks in every direction and the rusty creaking of the scarecrow as he tries to walk. How these teenagers are terrorized manages to transcend what movie ratings typically mean for a given film; this would be unsettling regardless of what it’s rated or how old the viewer is.

Troy James as The Jangly Man.

Troy James as The Jangly Man.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not a perfect horror anthology since it’s extremely simple in concept. A monster shows up, a kid disappears, and then it’s rinse and repeat for an hour and 47 minutes. At the same time though, it’s probably the scariest film of the summer and could potentially become the next big horror franchise. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark could easily take over where the Final Destination films left off or even be this generation’s answer to that. The practical effects mixed with just the right amount of CGI for the monsters are what really sell the film. Despite being as disjointed and unnatural as The Jangly Man, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is way more amusing and eerie than it has any right to be.

In case you're wondering, there's nothing after the end credits but it is worth sticking around to hear Lana Del Ray's cover of "Season of the Witch."

© 2019 Chris Sawin


Michael115 on August 10, 2019:

Going to see this film tonight! Can't wait for those PG-13 kills!