Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The film adaptation of the classic kid's horror book comes somewhat pleasingly and disappointing targeted at its younger audience. On the one hand, we have a horror story that takes care not just be mindless spookiness but has a point in relating to real-world events. On the other hand, it’s delivered with a very blunt staging, as though the filmmakers had to hold their hands to assure the message stuck about how reflective the chaos of the 1960s is frighteningly similar to the current climate. The result is a horror film that is more admirable for its intent than scary in its frights.
Taking place in the late 1960s in a sleepy American town, a collective a teenage social misfits are trying to find something to do on Halloween. A good source for all things spooky is the horror-loving teen, Stella (Zoe Colletti). She knows Night of the Living Dead by heart, has read tons of horror magazines and knows all about the town’s haunted history. So their Halloween night fun includes venturing to the old and abandoned of Sarah Bellows. So the story goes, Sarah Bellows killed herself within that decaying house and had been removed from all the photographs of the house. Legend speaks of her stories being deadly. So when Stella and her teenage cohorts stumble upon Sarah’s spooky book of horror stories, how could she resist? Sure, it’s printed with the blood of children but the stories could be good.
It turns out Sarah’s book is still a work in progress. Her spirit seems to be adding scary stories daily. And the characters are real people. And those real people are turning up missing. Surprise, it’s Sarah trying to kill them. Spooky but also somewhat standard in how the teens go about solving this mystery. They venture to the library and sneak into the hospital to look up records and find out what can stop Sarah’s string of killings. Her powers are extraordinary with how she can tap into the deepest fears of the teenagers. She can even edit old Edison tubes to scare the kids; that can’t be easy for a ghost.
The monsters she ends after the teens are pretty clever in design and staging. Consider the most accurate replication from the book’s illustrations of the Pale Lady, a wide and white woman with a big gut, wide smile, and small eyes. Assembled with practical effects, the lady lurches towards her victims in a contained environment where the lights flicker red and she can be seen replicating from every corner. Also, a brilliant design is that of the scarecrow Harold coming to life and not only gutting his victim but delivering some straw-based body horror as well. Speaking of body horror, the scene involving a pimple and spiders is brilliantly gross and rather unexpected for a PG-13 horror.
Where the film unfortunately falters is in its allegory that is oh-so-obvious. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate that the film makes the effort to not fear relating the political problems of the 1960s to the issues we face today with racism and immigration. That’s some surprisingly profound content for what could’ve been a drowsy bit of teen horror. The only problem is that it makes its message so blunt and somewhat mixed. The character embodying most of these plights is Ramon, a draft dodger that is constantly harassed for the color of his skin. His plight is intriguing but it ends on a bit of a sour note that carries more obvious weight behind the message than his characters.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t have a lot of scary stuff in it, unless you count the fears of today with the haunting past creeping into our modern politics. The film is worth it for the adult crowd for the competently staged monsters and the likable albeit brief charisma moments of the characters. At least the teen crowd will be able to take away a little more from this movie than not to read books written with blood.