Scary Stories is based on a popular young adult franchise (something that Hank and I have repeatedly mentioned is a huge selling point for a script) which is directed by Andre Ovredal (who directed Trollhunter, not my favorite, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe which I really enjoyed) and produced by Guillermo del Toro: so this sounds like a home run, right?
Well, hold on a second, as this film did have a lot going for it on paper, but there are also multiple things about this project that gave me pause:
1. It is a Pg-13 horror film – This is not to say that all Pg-13 horror pieces are bad, in fact, there are many that are great (The Ring, Lights Out and Happy Death Day are just a few examples) but it does give me a bit of pause.
That said, 3-Way and I talked and he reminded me that this is a series that was primarily aimed at young adults, so an R rating wouldn’t really make sense and he was very correct: know your audience!
2. This is sort of an anthology horror film – I cannot think of an anthology horror film that I really liked from start to finish. Yes, I’ve seen Trick ‘r Treat, Holidays, The ABC’s of Death, XX, All Hallows’ Eve, etc. and, while each of these had one or two segments that I may have liked, as a whole, I felt that the film wasn’t cohesive and didn’t hold up to even minor scrutiny.
I suppose the only one that was passable (in my opinion) is the first V/H/S – it was a novel idea and they executed it pretty well. Of course, they went on to make several sequels which I can’t imagine did much to improve on the concept.
3. I was not a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark reader when I was younger – I was more of a Goosebumps kid, though I do remember the illustrations being really haunting for the Scary Stories series. That is not to say that I was not looking forward to this film or that I had any negative presuppositions, but I may not have enjoyed it as much as someone who went to soak up the nostalgia, so I thought it was only fair to mention this in my review.
So, with all of that out of the way, let’s get into Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark!
Our film begins with a television announcement trying to recruit young men into the army to fight in the Vietnam War. I liked that this was a period piece, as it automatically answered the question: Why don’t they just call for help? And Why don’t they just Google that? However, I have to wonder if the setting and the Vietnam references are going to be completely missed by the target audience of teens and young adults.
Anyway, we are then given introductions to our main cast: Stella (a quiet girl whose mother went missing years ago), Auggie (a very lanky nerd), Chuck (our comic relief) and Ramon (the mysterious drifter-kid with a dark past)
On Halloween night, our nerdy trio of Stella, Auggie and Chuck, decide to get revenge on the popular jocks by throwing dog poop and eggs at their car. Surprisingly, this goes off without a hitch, and even the kids are amazed that their revenge-scheme went so smoothly. Unfortunately for them, they did not think of an escape plan and so are chased throughout the town by the jocks.
The group rushes to a drive-in that is playing Night of the Living Dead and duck into a stranger’s car. Lucky for them, the stranger who owns the car happens to be Ramon who takes pity on the kids and sends the jocks away before they can beat the snot out of our heroes.
Then, out of nowhere (and, yes, this came out of nowhere because it was never mentioned or really set-up before) Stella asks Ramon if he wants to visit a haunted house. He agrees and the group heads off to the abandoned Bellows Manor – the abandoned home of a notorious child-murderer named Sarah Bellows.
Once there, the kids are locked in the basement by Tommy (the most psychopathic of all the jocks) and left to rot. While they are trapped, Stella finds a book of stories that Sarah Bellows (the child-killer) supposedly used to lure children to her home so that she could murder them.
The door to the basement mysteriously opens after Stella finds the book and the kids all go their separate ways, but Stella, an aspiring writer, decides to keep Sarah’s book of stories for herself.
As Stella reads from the book, one-by-one, her friends are picked off. Stella then races to figure out what Sarah Bellows wants and how she can end the curse once and for all before Sarah writes Stella’s story and makes her disappear for good.
That is about all that I am going to say about the main story, as I really felt it was the weakest part of the film. The actors are all great – I especially love Austin Zajur who plays Chuck, our comic relief character, and look forward to seeing more of him in the future – but the main story (our connective tissue for this film) drags and felt like I had seen it all before.
In addition to that, there are several things that the many, many writers of this piece either intentionally or accidentally left completely unexplained. For example, we never find out how Sarah Bellows got the power to tell murderous stories or why she would want to harm our heroes. I won’t go into spoilers, but this is a big plot hole once you find out what really happened to Sarah Bellows and who she was.
Also, I told you that Stella’s mom disappeared and Stella blames herself, right? Well, if you think there is more to that story or that it somehow connects to the main plot or to Sarah Bellows and her killer tales of terror, you are wrong. This plot point literally goes nowhere and seems like everyone just kind of forgot about it, even though it is a major driving factor for our heroine.
That is just one of many unanswered questions and/or plot holes that the film is full of, but I am not going to spend too much time dissecting these, as I feel that to do that in full would take up most of this review.
Now, you don’t necessarily come to a film like this for the main plot, so how are the scary vignettes? Each is listed below with a brief description, but no spoilers, so you can decide if you want to brave a harsh summer night to get to the theater and hear some Scary Stories…
Harold the Scarecrow – Ah, Harold. The poor guy was just sitting in the cornfield, doing his thing, when, out of nowhere, Tommy (the psycho-jock) hit him with a baseball bat.
Once, fine. Harold is a nice guy and mistakes happen. But when Tommy hits him again, Harold has had enough and chases Tommy through the cornfield, hellbent on revenge.
This scene is pretty creepy, but I felt that it could have gone on much longer and been even more terrifying. I mean, it is a teen being hunted by a scarecrow in the middle of the night.
Also, another thing that I need to mention, since this is a period piece, the first time that we see Tommy he has just signed up for the army and is about to be sent to fight in the Vietnam War. No spoilers as to what happens to Tommy, but his recruitment is only mentioned at the beginning of the film and then this never comes back for his character.
I think they really could have played up the existential terror here by having Tommy survive all of the events, only to shipped out the next day or something similar so that we know that real horror still awaits him.
Where’s My Toe? – One of the most effective scares in the film, this scene sees Auggie left alone to make his own dinner. A mysterious pot of soup has appeared in his fridge and, despite warnings from his friends not to eat anything, Auggie tastes the soup.
Normally, no big deal, except this time, the soup has human remains in it and Auggie gets a big mouthful of toe! Not just that, but the zombie/ghost who previously owned that toe is coming for Auggie and wants to make him pay for gnawing on her body parts like she was an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I hate jump scares, but there is one in this sequence that was well-done and seems to have been directly taken from a James Wan film because there is a loooooonnnnnnggggg build-up to the jump and I was tensed up on the edge of my seat waiting for the inevitable.
The Red Room – One of the creepiest moments visually, this scene happens when our heroes go to the mental hospital that Sarah Bellows hung herself in. When Chuck gets separated from the group, the alarm begins to blare and a horrifically mutilated woman begins to stalk him through the empty halls.
I liked this one the most, as it was more psychological and just about the terror of being trapped, rather than relying on a jump scare or on gore.
The Zit – Chuck’s sister (who is barely a character in this, so I didn’t bother to mention her in the above character list) is about to star in a school play. However, she has a zit on her face that keeps growing and oozing uncontrollably.
This was my least favorite of the shorts. I just didn’t really care about the character (Ruth, according to IMDB) and it was more gross than scary. If you are a teenager, maybe this will be more effective, but for me, it was a yawn.
The Jangly Man – A pretty creepy character design that is kind of like The Thing meets the creatures from The Descent, The Jangly Man is sent to murder Ramon because of something he did in his past.
I won’t spoil the reveal, but I liked that they tied Ramon’s past into the time period and gave it some real weight. Plus, The Jangly Man is pretty creepy and a really cool character design and he gets some kills (of side characters, I’m not spoiling any major deaths) that were surprisingly icky.
The Haunted House – Where our story started is where our final showdown with Sarah Bellows takes place.
I won’t spoil anything here, other than to say that I am still bothered by the lack of explanation regarding Sarah’s powers, her motivations or really anything else about our main antagonist.
After this sequence, the film ends with some pretty blatant sequel-bait, which bothered me. I am sure this was a studio note or requirement, but just tell a story and, if it is good enough and makes enough money, then you can come back for a sequel. Ah, well, it’s a minor complaint, but it did bother me, so I had to say something.
I talked some people into going to see this with me and was surprised to find myself being the only one of my group to defend the film. I enjoyed it and thought there was plenty to like, while the others had real problems with the many plot holes and some character decisions. And these were the same people that I saw that unwatchable Aquaman film with, and yet Scary Stories seemed to be where they draw the line in terms of a coherent narrative and complete character arcs.
What I am saying is that I would whole-heartedly give this a RENT IT as I enjoyed a lot of it and think it is an enjoyable horror film for teens and those who grew up with the books.
That is just my opinion, however, what did you think of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Let me know in the comments!
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