As the box office numbers came trickling in early Sunday morning it became clear that, while Universal’s Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw was holding the number one spot for its second week of domestic release, there was a new sheriff in town that was racking up some serious bucks of its own and breathing down the neck of the David Leitch helmed action comedy at a close second spot: the chillingly appropriate title Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Posting a more than respectable showing of almost 21 million dollars (domestic), Scary Stories proves that there is still a large audience for the horror genre.
The Andre Ovredal directed, Guillermo del Toro produced Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark might as well be titled Scary Stories We Tell in the Dark. The vignettes presented within the one hour and forty seven minute time-frame are the exact sort of stories everyone growing up within a stone’s throw away from EC Comics, The Twilight Zone and cultural urban legends and ghost stories would gather around a campfire and whisper about in ominous tones. As we gorged on S’more’s and overcooked hot dogs and tried valiantly to look stoic and unimpressed amongst our friends and family as one creepy story after another filled the summer darkness, we knew the real truth of the matter: These shared bits of creepy folklore were seriously eerie business.
Before coming to undead life in this new Hollywood production, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark frightened readers in three collections of horror yarns targeted at young audiences. This trilogy of terror was penned by Alvin Schwartz with the able backing of illustrator Stephen Gammell and, between 1981 and 1991, traumatized (in the best possible way, mind you) generations of bookworms. Stories such as The Haunted House, The Window and You May Be Next…populated childhood nightmares for years and created a crop of literary artists who now inform our own time in 2019.
With the debut of the film version we are presented with a faithful and very scary rendition of the Schwartz and Gammell stories. Ovredal and del Torro wisely stay true to the short story format of the original novels, presenting us with an anomaly in mainstream Hollywood: The return of the horror anthology film. Taking place in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania during 1968, the story opens with a small group of high school misfits and they could all really represent the fans of the horror movie genre that bought tickets to see this movie: There is a requisite class clown type (Austin Zajur), a bona-fide horror movie aficionado (Zoe Colletti) and lovelorn Auggie (Gabriel Rush). The three are tormented by a school bully (Austin Abrams) and, in excellent Tales from the Crypt style, decide to exact some well-deserved revenge on him on Halloween night – of course. Part of the twist is that the bully is on a date with one of the trio’s sister and this, among other things, is the ultimate undoing of their plot for some comeuppance. After things unravel, the group and another friend wind up at a supposedly haunted house and the film begins to take off with rocket like propulsion as the trio tell the legend of a woman who supposedly killed herself years ago in this very house to the outsider of the group (played with exceptional grace by Michael Garza). It seems that this woman had poisoned some of the local children before taking her own life and had used their blood to write a morbid book of short and scary stories. Apparently, the Necronomicon from the Evil Dead series couldn’t hold a candle to this evil book which, of course, the quartet locate in the abandoned house. Once they escape the house with the book the story switches into a creepy mode which doesn’t let up for the remainder of the running time.
The stories within the book are adaptations of the Schwartz stories and they act as Serling-like allegories to the social and global unrest of the year the movie takes place in, 1968. But be not afraid of a ham-fisted world history lesson as the scares are what comes first and foremost and all allusions to the Vietnam War, campus riots and Richard Nixon are background to be taken – or not – on their own merits.
Watching the film in a packed theater on opening night, I was struck by the mastery of the director as he slowly unfolded events, almost like a nightmare in slow motion. We’re introduced to Harold, a farmhouse scarecrow, a spider who infects one of our key characters and a ghost looking for its missing toe. It’s a dazzling and dark potpourri of things that go bump in the night and, after viewing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark you might just be left with an uneasy feeling as you turn out the house lights and turn in for bed. This prime directive of every horror movie is observed if not always followed and has been left rather fallow over the years as chilling psychological terror has been supplanted by a more show and tell approach to the genre. Perhaps, with this new look at some great scary stories, we will return to a less is more approach in local cineplexes.