Before you get completely bent out of shape about the fact that this latest horror offering from producer Guillermo del Toro (who is also given a “screen story” credit) is rated PG-13, take into consideration that the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series—three books over 10 years—was made for kids. Though not in the same way something like Goosebumps was, Scary Stories definitely weren’t meant to scar kids for life. Another thing to keep in mind is that there are such things as truly scary and effective PG-13 horror movies. Just ask anyone who has ever seen The Ring, The Others, The Grudge, Drag Me To Hell, the Insidious series, or, most recently, A Quiet Place, to name a few.
Based on the books by the late Alvin Schwartz (and adapted by Dan & Kevin Hageman) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a play off the act of presenting terrifying tales in a group setting (the books even have suggestions for the reader on how he/she might scare those listening to the story being recited at specific moments). But rather than bring individual stories into an anthology work, the filmmakers have made the stories themselves the bringer of menace and even death in a story set in 1968, in the height of the Vietnam War and on the brink of Richard Nixon being re-elected as president. It is absolutely no coincidence that horror is being presented to us on two fronts—the supernatural and the political (more specifically, the threat of being drafted into the military and dying overseas in an unjust war).
Three smalltown teenage best friends—Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur)—decide to celebrate Halloween by getting a bit of revenge on local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), who just happens to be dating Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). The revenge in question involves a flaming bag of poo, and makes Tommy so angry, he chases the kids into a drive-in theater where they hide in the car of Ramon (Michael Garza). When the threat has seemingly subsided, they decide to hit the local scary house where legend has it that a young woman named Sarah Bellows died, perhaps by her own hand.
In the house, the kids find a secret room where Sarah’s parents locked her away, and in it, they discover a book of hand-written stories Sarah wrote, each featuring macabre tales with the names of her family members mentioned as the victims of various horrible, presumably fictional scenarios. They take the book and before long the stories begin appearing on the pages in fresh red ink that might be blood. Even worse, as they are being written by an invisible hand into the book, the events being described begin to happen in real life to people the kids all know. Each story has a strange title, like “Harold,” “The Big Toe,” or “The Red Spot,” and the kids must figure out why this is happening and how to stop it before anyone in their small circle becomes the next victim.
The mystery surrounding Sarah Bellow’s life and death are tied into her powerful family and the ways in which the rich steamroll over those they deem lesser than—a lesson that Americans were also learning during the late 1960s. Each of the scary stories features a grotesque creature of some sort, the design of which seems to have been taken directly from the books’ original artwork, illustrated by Stephen Gammell. But watching these hideous things move and make odd noises as they jerk and twist in inhuman ways pushes certain boundaries in supposedly kid-friendly horror. Norwegian director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunter) has a genuine talent of keeping things on just the right side of graphic and terrifying. That being said, one specific monster is actually made up of different body parts that separate and come back together—not always in exactly the right way—and the result is genuinely unnerving.
Other stories involve a ghastly scarecrow, a severed toe, and the end result of a fairly nasty spider bite. Each one gives us just enough to quicken our pulses in a way that feels more like a thrill ride than an endurance challenge where filmmakers often test the limits of blood, guts and taste. I’m not sure just how scared I was at Scary Stories, but I was deeply impressive with the craftsmanship of the creature designs and the performances by the young cast, who are required to play scared like pros and carry a great deal of emotional weight, as the truth about Sarah Bellows is revealed and the reality of the Vietnam War hits them closer than they care to admit.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Scary Stories a message movie, and it certainly isn’t political; but isn’t without its parallel threads that bring the supernatural in line with the all-too real. Despite its slant toward slightly younger target audiences, the movie never panders or feels watered down; it just opts not to get fully extreme, and that’s perfectly fine—we’ve got plenty of other horror offerings this year that will (I’m looking at you It: Chapter 2). There are times when it feels a bit too long, but aside from that minor gripe, this is a solid creepshow, one that younger people with a taste for darker material might really get a jolt out of.
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