Directed by André Øvredal
Starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush
I wasn’t fortunate enough to read the entire Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy, the book series written by Alvin Schwartz released over a decade-long span beginning in 1981. It had the dubious honor of being banned by the American Library Association for supposedly being too disturbing for its tween audience. But I count myself lucky to have been able to read the third book—it is stuffed full of indelible tales, and reads like an embarrassment of riches for fans of macabre literature. Because Alvin Schwartz died months after its 1991 publication, the third installment feels like a sad blooming of the author’s powers before death cut it down.
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The Scary Stories series works for a number of reasons. One, the tales straddle that fine line between horror and terror, between visceral revulsion and nagging disquiet. Horror is a gut punch, and while Scary Stories deliver those too, its tales are more insidious, burrowing under the psyche and refusing to dislodge. The fact that the tales within the anthology are short helped too, making them even more efficient and effective. And then there are Stephen Gammell’s illustrations: the off-kilter, black-and-white drawings tap into Schwartz’s genius, evoking the dread in his tales and giving them shape, yet having that unfinished, abstract quality that encourages your mind to fill in the blanks. Schwartz and Gammell instinctively knew that nothing is scarier than our imaginations.
Which is primarily the problem with the film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: It can’t help but fill in the blanks for us. It certainly couldn’t have found a more fitting patron than Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican auteur who manages to keep a patina of fairy tale innocence and child-like wonder in his movies no matter how dark and bizarre the turns they take. The Academy Award-winner assumes producing and writing duties here, handing the directorial reins over to Norwegian director André Øvredal. But del Toro’s first misstep was junking the anthology nature of his source material, instead subsuming the stories into an overarching narrative.
The larger plot goes something like this: It is 1968, the Vietnam War is in full swing and Richard Nixon is poised to defeat Hubert Humphrey in the presidential elections. But in the farming town of Mill Valley, this epoch of change feels like a world away (and indeed, doesn’t have much of a thematic resonance on the proceedings except for one plot element). Horror aficionado Stella (Zoe Colletti) is your archetypal outsider teen who gets roped into a Halloween payback prank by her equally outcast friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) against school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), who happens to be dating Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). Scampering away from Tommy and his baseball bat, the crew seek refuge in drifter Ramon’s (Michael Garza) car, and invite him to an excursion to the town’s designated haunted house. There, they discover a hidden book of stories purportedly written by the long-gone family’s disowned daughter. It doesn’t take long for the teens to realize that cracking open the book has unleashed a supernatural evil—one that is determined to make them the protagonists of the macabre tales it is still writing.
Each of the horrors visited upon the interloping teens are callbacks to the stories in the books—three of them are from the third installment—and the villains are almost exact replicas of Gammell’s drawings. But giving Gammell’s haunting illustrations three-dimensional measure robs them of the ambiguous power they had in the books. Meanwhile, making the stories serve a larger narrative—basically, a central mystery that serves as a vehicle for another of del Toro’s misunderstood ghouls—bleaches them of their original intent and compact wit.
There’s a reason why Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark resonated with a generation of readers: It was honest enough to tell its young audience that, contrary to what protective parents and pesky librarians may tell you, the world is indeed a place fraught with unimaginable dangers. The film adaptation, for its part, wants to make a point about the power of stories, but all it offers is one that is a testament to Hollywood’s overblown tendencies.
Photographs from CBS Films Inc. and eOne Features LLC