Wednesday, August 14, 2019
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Directed by Andre Ovredal to a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro. Based on the books by Alvin Schwartz.
Starring Zoe Colletti as Stella and Michael Garza as Ramone.
“The book reads you.”
In today’s parlance, this movie issues several “trigger warnings”—that is, don’t anger your local scarecrow; inspect your next bowl of soup for a dismembered big toe; and be careful what scary stories you read in the dark—they may appear on screen at your local theater.
That’s what happens in this exemplary collection of local legends, twice-told tales, and campfire frights. They've come to the screen. Based on stories by Alvin Schwartz whose publication in the 1990s occasioned trigger warnings of their own to cautious parents and young readers, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK delivers plenty of shocks and gross-outs. It’s just in time for a new generation of young adults (it’s rated PG-13) who’ve grown up on Stranger Things.
They understand. Just like readers in the ‘90s understood.
At the heart of the stories, both on stage and screen is a book. You don’t read the book, it reads you. Thus, five teenagers in the sleepy little town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania find themselves in possession of a book that “reads’ their respective traumas and produces them, “writ large,” tailor-made, as it were, to their real life. Stella, who is a young storyteller, finds this book during a raid she and her friends make on a local haunted house. Local legend has it that a wealthy family of industrialists named Bellows once lived there; and that they kept secluded from public view their disturbed and abused daughter, Sara, who eventually hung herself. After the family mysteriously disappeared, the house has been left to wrack and ruin. But Stella may yet walk there...
The book in Stella’s hand contains hand-written stories by Sara Bellows. They are written by a very angry young lady who is raging against her fate. The ink is fresh. That’s because Sara is writing scary stories even now, long after her death. The words crawl across the pages, line by line, even as they watch. And each of the stories is targeted to destroy Stella and her companions.
And so, heigh-ho, off we go, on with these deadly, twisty tales, as Sara and her friends try to find the secret behind Sara Bellows and her book before they all meet nasty ends. The stories nicely balance a delicious campfire thrill with a more substantial, gruesome impact. The monsters are very cool, especially the vengeful scarecrow and a decidedly creepy character called “the dangling man,” who assembles his body parts into a hideous parody of the human form. It’s pretty strong stuff; and I suspect some younger viewers prepared to laugh at the gross-out moments might find the laughter catching in their throats. The stories are writing them, too.
I see the intrusion of a Vietnam-era background—the movie is set in 1968 and one of the kids is dodging the draft—as ultimately irrelevant, unless you accept the fact that newsreel footage of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon present horrors of their own that are quite in keeping with the rest of the movie. Moreover, the addition of a backstory about the coverup of the poisoning of Mill Valley’s water supply may unnecessarily complicate the hard-wiring of the plot.
The direction and shock cuts deliver what young audiences come for. And the name of Guillermo del Toro serves as another lure to get them into the theaters. But viewers of a certain age—that’s me—may come away with how neatly the movie taps into those “phobic pressure points” that Stephen King writes about in his classic Danse Macabre (still one of the best overviews of horror we have). The mantra that “Books read us,” fits right in. That “danse” in search of our phobias is precisely the way words on the printed page and images on the movie screen seek us out—find us—and have their way with us.