Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, horror-related media intended for younger audiences with movies such as Gremlins and The Monster Squad, or book series such as R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps began to grow in popularity because, despite conventionally accepted social taboos, children are inherently drawn towards things that frighten them. Arguably, no piece of media was able to tap into that market as effectively, or with as much public outrage and controversy, as Alvin Schwartz’s young adult horror series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
The series quickly gained a notorious reputation among parent groups and school libraries as being the newest example of our youth being corrupted by the violent media, citing its grisly imagery and depraved, gruesome violence as being too extreme for its intended audience of middle schoolers, and still remains one of the most widely banned books in the United States history. Its reputation nowadays among horror fans that grew up with the series is often attributed with being an effective gateway into the horror genre and grappling with morbid concepts in palatable manners that their overprotective authority figures had attempted to shelter them from at every turn. Bringing this adaptation to the screen are producer Guillermo del Toro, who’s shown no aversion towards embracing fantastical monsters and perfecting creature designs, and director Andre Ovredal, who’s proven his skill as a craftsman of bone-chilling suspense with The Autopsy of Jane Doe.
Rather than structuring the film as an anthology of the various short stories, much like how the stories were presented in the books, the film opts to string together many of the series’ most notable short stories in its own narrative about a group of teenagers who accidentally discover a book which details each child’s fate and unleashes several of the most recognizable monsters to manifest those stories into reality. On its surface, the film’s setting and time period appears to be chasing the wave of modern nostalgia-driven horror/sci-fi properties such as Stranger Things and It, as its opening scene establishes this small town’s atmosphere during Halloween of 1968 with a montage set to the song “Season of the Witch” showcasing various pieces of late 60’s nostalgia from the trends in clothing to posters of cult horror movies of the time, set against the backdrop of this time period’s scariest story of all: the Nixon Administration and the Vietnam War.
The threat of death that pervades over our set of main characters from the literal threat of the monsters that are intentionally hunting down and killing them is juxtaposed with the fear of death that most Americans (particularly able-bodied men over the age of 18) had been experiencing during the era of the Vietnam War. The inability to escape from it, both literally and figuratively, as the war’s coverage was consistently being broadcast on the nightly news, was constantly inundating the public with the onslaught of death that loomed over the country. It is a pretty thinly examined connection throughout and the script begins to spell it out a little too obviously in the final act, but it is still a thoughtful allegory that works to strengthen the theme of the story and the character’s arcs. While somewhat heavy-handed in delivery it does add layers behind this specific time period beyond simply evoking baby-boomer nostalgia. An element all the more appreciated in the current climate of nostalgia bombardment.
The group of teens that we end up following consist of the typical ensemble of personalities that can be expected to appear in a film of this ilk: the nerd, the vulgar wise-cracker, the bully that they have to avoid whose unrealistically over-the-top murderous bloodlust rivals even that of Freddy Kreuger, among several other standard stereotypes and cliches. The de facto leader of the group and cult horror movie aficionado, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), is unquestionably the strongest and most three-dimensional character of the bunch. Her emotional struggle and tragic backstory (which is delivered through admittedly clunky exposition dumps early on), how it affects her relationship with her father (Dean Norris) and how they work through it with each other become an endearing emotional crux to rest the film.
Having a nice emotional core at the center is a surprising added bonus, but for a movie titled Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the selling point is going to be its scares. What stood out most notably in the minds of fans of the book series were the shocking and grisly illustrations by Stephen Gammell, creating nightmare fuel for many budding horror lovers during their youth. For the most part, at least for some of the more iconic creatures, their designs and mannerisms are adapted into the film rather faithfully, though not without some rough spots due to some dodgy CGI. For a PG-13 rated horror movie intended for a younger demographic, it’s often restricted to relying on the tired tropes of cheap jump scares and unexpected loud noises in order to elicit fear. There are, however, a handful of creepy sequences that play with suspense and tension in more nuanced and interesting ways, though they still remain infrequent.
The Red Spot sequence is stomach-churning body horror that plays on the everyday horror of young teens perceptions of their bodies. The Red Room with the Pale Lady is the unquestioned highlight of the film, a display of nightmarish helplessness in which a deformed inhuman looking cretin is slowly chasing after you around every corner and there’s no escape. It’s unfortunate that not a lot of the other creatures in the film could be treated with that same level of dread and discomfort, most of them such as Harold the Scarecrow and The Jangly Man being used as nothing more than prompts for jump scares.
By the film’s resolution, it presumptuously attempts to set itself up for a sequel which it doesn’t feel like it naturally builds itself up for. Whether or not that sequel ever does come to fruition, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark still validates its own existence as both a worthwhile entry point into horror for younger budding horror fans, much like the series of books that it is based on, and a satisfying appetizer for IT: Chapter 2 later this year. It may prove to be semi-standard horror fare for more seasoned veterans of the genre, but for its intended demographic, it may be a Halloween classic in the making for a younger generation.