Warning: This post contains spoilers!
With my family preoccupied and my hometown friends busy with school already, on a cloudy afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I decided to drive out to the middle of nowhere, alone. There I found a brand new theater, stuck between an active construction site and a row of hollow condos, spacious but extremely empty. The theater was similarly unoccupied. Apparently, no one wants to go see a scary movie at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. Who would’ve guessed?
I want to preface this review with the sorry fact that I was sitting all by myself, completely alone in this dark theater, for the purpose of revealing the massive amounts of personal bias I’ll have when discussing the actual scary-factor of this film. The movie in question is, of course, Andre Ovredal and Guillermo del Toro’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” which, right off the bat, probably should have come out in October, but to be fair, the market is a little saturated around Halloween–time. This movie, though, is extremely Halloween-y. Horror movies like “Us” or “Hereditary,” I have no problem watching outside the realm of spooky season, but for this movie, it was immediately apparent that the month of October would have made a better home. It fell under the category of horror film I like to call “classically scary,” however, a classic it is not.
Above all, I thought “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is an interesting take on our most traditional modern ghost stories. I’ve never read Alvin Schwartz’s original book — nor did I know there was a book — but a lot of his stories are still familiar to me, having been passed around by word of mouth since I was a little kid. “The Big Toe” and others like it have always been this special kind of sleepover folklore. I just didn’t realize just how far reaching those stories were until I found out that this film was being made.
Since it is based on a book for children, the stories are predictably a little juvenile — you’ve got your scarecrows, your music boxes, your spiders and ghosts — all the trappings of a generic ghost story. Still, I’m jumpy as shit at this point, being alone — and the way I am — so I thought it was terribly scary at the time. Looking back on it, I realize it’s simply kind of cute and campy, and above all, classically Halloween; watching it evokes all the sounds, smells, and feelings of stepping into a disjointed haunted house. You know you’re going to get a lot of mild scares, but it’s exciting to try to guess what form they will take next.
I definitely want to tackle the frame narrative at this point. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t just a simple anthology — despite never having watched a horror anthology I’ve liked before. I wasn’t wild about the storytelling ghost — it’s a weird, meta idea that could have worked, but it was poorly executed. And although I like our main character, Stella, she and most of the other characters are dumb as bricks, and any exposition we get about them is handfed to the audience very awkwardly. In short, I guess the comparison to a generic old horror movie still checks out, huh? I might find an exception to the rule in Ramone’s draft dodger subplot, which is both relevant and interesting. It also seems as if Ramone’s storybook monster is the only one that actually ties into his character. This, in my opinion, is the movie’s most prominent flaw. As I watched the film, when the characters would say things like, “You don’t read the book. The book reads you,” I’d laugh out loud because I couldn’t find a hint of foreshadowing to tie these scary stories to their victims. For this reason, even weeks later, it’s hard for me to figure out the rules of the book — how does it decide who’s next? Why does it match up stories with people the way it does? Are the questions I’m asking totally pointless? Is the book even going to follow its own rules?
Something about this movie tells me that maybe a collection of short stories for kids just wasn’t ever going to adapt well to the big screen. That isn’t to say “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” wasn’t scary. I’m definitely going to be having nightmares about the Me Tie Doughty Walker long into my twilight years, and there was even a point when I actually screamed in the theater. In the end, maybe it was a good thing no one else was there. But a sizable portion of the most fear-effective horror bits are gross-outs and jump–scares. On top of that, many of the scenes meant to be scary are just “Character X is slowly pursued by a monster,” but said monster is just a different flavor each time. Is that really all that scary stories were when we were kids? I mean, I thought “It Follows” was a banger of a movie, and most of the movie was a slow monster pursuit. But if every horror movie I watched was just “It Follows” wearing a different hat, I’d probably lose interest pretty quickly.
The parts of this movie I liked most tended to be those little elements of intrigue. They have a couple of really clever reveals, especially concerning the whole “Red Room” sequence, where they use creative lighting and naming conventions to throw us off and surprise us. I also don’t really mind the computer-generated imaging, which is weird for me. Somehow, the prosthetics and CGI creatures work together in a way that was, for me, pretty scary. I’m guessing this is del Toro’s work.
The ending is bittersweet, which I really do enjoy when it comes to horror. But when the film culminated in Stella simply reasoning with the ghost, I was a bit disappointed. I think it could have been done in a more effective way, possibly stressing how every horror writer’s dream is to be implored by a real ghost to tell her story. But as for how it was actually handled, I just couldn’t believe that it actually worked! The whole movie strives to hammer in that theme of “stories have power,” but sometimes, I think that all it manages to tell us was that “magic stories have power.” It’s a very, very near miss for me, and it all could have been remedied by drawing a little more connection between each character and the story they were attacked with. Ramone’s is the nearest example I can present of this done right. More than anything else, I wish I had gotten to hear more of the much beloved stories from the source material. I suspect that’s what we’re all here for, anyway.