Zoe Margaret Colletti - Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza - Ramon Morales
Gabriel Rush - Auggie Hilderbrandt
Austin Abrams - Tommy
Dean Norris - Roy Nicholls
Gil Bellows - Chef Turner
Lorraine Toussaint - Lou Lou
Austin Zajur - Chuck Steinberg
Natalie Ganzhorn - Ruth Steinberg
Genre - Horror/Fantasy
Running Time - 111 Minutes
PLOT (from IMDB)
The shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large in the small town of Mill Valley for generations. It’s in a mansion that young Sarah Bellows turns her tortured life and horrible secrets into a series of scary stories. These terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real for a group of unsuspecting teens who stumble upon Sarah’s spooky home.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on a series of books that I was a huge fan of when I was younger. Each book had many different stories and urban legends play out in anthology form, told as almost campfire tales to creep one out. With the success of GOOSEBUMPS having been adapted to the big screen to critical and commercial acclaim, it was a no brainer that SCARY STORIES would get the film treatment. Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andre Øvredal [of TROLL HUNTER and THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE acclaim], the film had a lot of buzz going into its theatrical release. To be honest with you, I wasn’t all that impressed by the trailers for the film. Yet, I was still curious and knew I’d be supporting the project opening weekend. I’m glad I did because I really liked SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, even though I had issues with how the story was presented at times.
Let’s get the positive things out of the way first. I think what I enjoyed most about SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is the film’s atmosphere. The film takes place in 1968 and it never forgets to remind you of that, which I appreciated. We get some great 60s music and pop culture elements of the time, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at a drive-in and classic Universal Monsters being talked about and appreciated. There are also many news reels and discussions amongst characters about the 1968 Presidential Election, which Richard Nixon won despite a lot of these characters not liking the guy. This is obviously an allusion to our current political and social climate, with both Øvredal and del Toro pretty much saying that history has repeated itself - especially if you see how the one Latino character is treated by a police officer and certain members of the community is any example. The best thing is the film never hammers it to a point where its distracting like some other films would in this day and age, so that was much appreciated. And considering the film occurs on Halloween and a few days after, SCARY STORIES captures the Halloween and fall vibe really well. I also liked the haunted house elements added as well, capturing a level of innocence and naivety that probably doesn’t exist in a modern and cynical world. It was really well done.
I also thought the actors were very good, as well as the characters written for them. The highlights were Zoe Coletti as main character Stella, Michael Garza as new guy Ramon and both Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur as comic reliefs Auggie and Chuck respectively. The young actors had great rapport with each other and I bought them as genuine friends who would natural come together to solve this mystery and save themselves. Could their characters have had more development? Sure. But the actors stood out and made the cliched characters their own for the most part.
And while the CGI effects weren’t the most realistic, I thought the monster designs were pretty spot on to their book counterparts. It was cool seeing some of the monsters in live-action, even though I wish there was more of them [I’ll get to that in a bit]. But when they do appear, the tension definitely spikes and some of the jump scares provided even works. I hadn’t read any of the books in a long time, but I definitely remembered whenever a creature would terrorize someone. I’m not sure if it will affect younger audiences the same way it did me, but nostalgia hit hard with this one.
And while the film is well made and well structured, I just feel like the whole “group of pop culture savvy kids solving mysteries together” trope is getting way played out at this point. And that’s where SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK failed for me. It’s generic and predictable, with nothing new added that I haven’t seen in films like THE GOONIES, THE MONSTER SQUAD, both versions of IT and even Stranger Things on Netflix. Yes, this type of storytelling works immensely and provides a lot of fun for audiences to watch these characters grow into themselves and as a group of heroes saving the day from supernatural danger. But I felt the film focused too much on this aspect, only using the tales from the book as a plot device whenever a character needed to disappear for a while. The monsters and the stories themselves honestly should have been the main attraction here, possibly done in an anthology type flick that would have used these popular tales to their fullest potential. Hell, there’s so many of them that you could easily create a franchise. But instead, we get the monsters in the background to the human drama that isn’t all that interesting because it’s been done to death. I’m not saying that the screenplay is terribly written, because it’s far from that. In fact, I liked the whole FINAL DESTINATION element of the stories being used to target a certain character and use their fear against them. But the film is called SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and it doesn’t really live up to its title other than the antagonists being used. I enjoyed myself watching it all play out and never felt insulted by anything on screen. But I think it was a missed opportunity to really go all out with the use of its source material. I felt that the film played it a bit too safe.
THE FINAL HOWL
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is a film that will definitely appeal to children and adolescents who are starting to build their horror film watch history without frightening them too much or turning them off in any way. For diehard horror fans who grew up on the books and may be expecting a close enough adaptation might come away from it feeling something was lacking. It’s a fun movie, without a doubt, as it breezes by with a great Halloween and Autumn atmosphere, solid young actors who are very likable, and a very good live-action CGI showcase of some of the book’s supernatural characters. However, the human story was a bit generic, cliche and safe, while the source material was a bit underutilized. I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities in this film and I was expecting a bit more out of it. Still, SCARY STORIES is definitely worth your time if you’re familiar with the books the film is based on, or if you just enjoy PG-13 horror that does more right than wrong.