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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Review: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Director: André Øvredal
Screenplay: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton, and Marcus Dunstan
Year: 2019

Synopsis: During Halloween, a group of teenagers enters a haunted house where they find a book of scary stories. Shortly they realize that the book is still being written and they are now the main characters of its stories. While the horrible events of the stories start becoming a reality, the teenagers investigate the secrets behind the death of the writer, which could be the key to their salvation.

"Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark" is based on a series of books for teenagers by author Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. This book series has been as popular as it has been controversial, as many parents in the United States considered them to be too frightening and inappropriate for kids. If you don’t know about the story and controversy behind these books I recommend you watch the documentary "Scary Stories”, an excellent piece that presents all that happened around them.

It could have been expected that this movie being based on a series of short stories would have been a horror anthology. To the surprise of many, I included, the writers of the script for this movie, the legendary Guillermo del Toro (“El Laberinto del Fauno”) among them, present a single story that, in a creative and smart way, manage to integrate some of the stories that made Schwartz famous. A good combination that honors the work of the author, but that pleases a more general public by keeping within the canons of commercial cinema.

In “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark”, a group of teenagers goes to a haunted house. There they find a book with several stories written, belonging to a woman accused of using black magic. Shortly they discover that the stories in these books are still being written and they are now the main character in them. To try and escape their destiny, they start investigating the past of the author of the book and discover the secrets surrounding her death.

Like the books, “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” is clearly focused on a teen audience. The horror is based on creating a favorable atmosphere for jump scares, many of them not being really relevant to the plot, and for presenting eerie monsters. The atmosphere is effective but still feels like a teenager focused movie, with predictable jump scares and no gore or frightening images. The monsters is one of the better-crafted areas of the movie, honoring the disturbing illustrations of Gammell and honoring the writings of Schwartz, where they even use the "Hearse Song" as an important plot point. 

The plot of this movie is based on the '60s and it does a great job of pointing out the political and social issues of the time in the United States, some of which we are still facing. It got my attention that much effort is put into pointing out issues like the Vietnam war, Nixon's election, and the racism present at the time, but more than serving as social criticism, it's not important to the plot. I'm still wondering what was the purpose of setting the story in the '60s beyond the differences in technology with the present time. 

As expected from a crew of veteran horror filmmakers, the movie is well crafted around what it tries to be: a horror movie for teens or novices of the genre. The Norwegian director André Øvredal (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) leads the story well towards the most atmospheric and eerie side, only showing brushstrokes of something more frightening, but never leaning towards it. They also do a great job with the casting, most of them not known young actors, who manage to do good performances in line with what was being presented in the plot.

“Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” does a great job of paying homage to the works of Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell but giving it its own unique twist. Like the books it is based on, it’s directed towards a teenage audience, which ends up limiting its potential to be frightening and ending up with a too commercial a product. Even the ending, which leaves the path paved for a sequel, felt bland and lazy, with plenty of untapped potential. “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” is a good movie, especially for fans of the books, that was too complacent with being scary when it could have been frightening.

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