Review - 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark'
The books by Alvin Schwartz that this movie was based on haunted me as a child. The short tales told within those pages were a little too dark, and the artwork by Stephen Gammell was grotesque and, after a quick google search, are still definitely disturbing (link). It comes with a heavy heart, then, that these oddly nostalgic, nightmare-inducing novels are not nearly as creepy or morbidly fascinating on the screen as they were on paper.
When Stella (Zoe Colletti) opens a cursed book in an abandoned mansion with a dark past, she inadvertently sets into motion a sequence of deadly events upon her friends. She and her dwindling group of peers must figure out a way to put an end to the chain of attacks.
With Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, director André Øvredal decided to take the same approach that the recent Goosebumps flick starring Jack Black did, which isn’t a bad idea. Goosebumps translated pretty well to the big screen, even if I did find it to be a tad superfluous and forgettable in the end. The film was still a fun Halloween-themed romp thanks to inventive monster run-ins and Jack Black’s signature manic charm. While Scary Stories does possess some spooky creatures and scenarios, it falls flat on its face in the latter category. Perhaps that’s why this movie doesn’t work for me; there’s no Jack Black equivalent here. I hate to say it, but I found myself craving some star-power, or at least a commanding performance to tie everything together. Without that leading man/woman/boy/girl performance, I found the film lacking in personality and drive.
Instead, Scary Stories takes a Goonies/IT/Stranger Things approach to its cast, which would have worked if not for the fact that most of them seemed like they arrived on set straight out of high school drama class. The performances are not bad, per-se, but I couldn’t shake that sense that these kids were always aware that they were being filmed. The performances are never quite believable. On top of that, the movie expects me to care about what happens to the children when they meet their various demises, but doesn’t do the leg-work to set up interesting personalities or arcs for them. There’s a surprise at the end that reveals a character is still alive and the movie pauses for effect for the audience to rejoice, but it just ended up being an awkward moment of silence and confusion because, one, the character makes virtually no emotional impact on the film, and two, I had forgotten that the person in question had actually died in the first place.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t disappoint with its host of horrific monsters, of which there are a sizable handful. A good chunk of the iconic stories from the novels carry over into the film and each one is executed with care and precision, and in these sequences, the film comes to life. Despite how chilling some of these parts can be, I still think Øvredal missed an opportunity. While the creature designs mirror the pictures, there’s something viscerally terrifying about Gammells illustrations that doesn’t carry over to the screen. In addition to this, part of me wishes the film had just tackled one of the short stories and found a way to stretch it to feature length, that or have an anthology-like film similar to Creep Show. Something about having all of these stories compacted into one movie seems wasteful, as some of the stories I feel would have been better with more build-up.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a pretty big let-down. The film isn’t a total loss, and that’s mainly because of how well some of the stories and creatures are adapted, but the movie never got under my skin like the source material did and there’s nobody in the cast that steps up to the plate to lead the film, thus leaving the audience with an experience that lacks drive and emotional stakes.