Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark first published by Sight & Sound, October 2019

Review: The frightening tales promised in the title of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark are told and retold, reconstituted, rewritten (in blood) and recycled. It has been adapted from some of the creepy contes (Harold, The Big Toe, The Dream, Me Tie Dough-ty Walker, The Haunted House) collected (from pre-existing folkloric models and urban legends) in Alvin Schwartz’s three horror anthologies (1981-91) for teens. It is not itself an anthology film, but rather binds its stories together with a new framing narrative set in 1968. This is a time of profound change, as the youthful optimism and idealism of the Sixties is beginning to sour. In the background, the airwaves buzz with news of children being sacrificed to the Vietnam War, while Republican Richard ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon, himself a teller of tall tales (and a precursor of Trump), is in the process of winning the Presidency. Accordingly screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman, working from a story by Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, have made Schwartz’s tales resonate with a transitional period in American politics, as well as with the present.  

The stories also resonate with the film’s teen characters. In Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, after aspiring horror writer Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends have broken into an abandoned nineteenth-century mansion and taken a notebook in which, seventy years earlier, young Sarah Bellows was said to have penned stories that she told to local children shortly before they died, the adolescents find themselves written into new stories which describe the terrifying circumstances of their doom in real time – and each monster reflects the particular fears of its victim: Tommy (Austin Abrams), terrified of retaliation from those he bullies, is attacked by the scarecrow which he subjects to his aggressions; Auggie (Gabriel Rush), with his phobias about food additives, is taken by the ghost whose missing toe was in his dinner; Chuck (Austin Zajur), who pulls away from his mother’s smothering affection, is absorbed into the embrace of a monstrous woman (named ‘The Pale Lady’, in a link-up to the child-devouring Pale Man from del Toro’s 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth); and, more politically, the racism-facing, draft-dodging Ramón (Michael Garza), horrified that his brother returned from Vietnam in pieces, is pursued by the relentless ‘Jangly Man’, who deconstructs and reconstructs himself from his own body parts. Finally Stella confronts the ghostly Sarah, as one writer to another, with a proposal to end the various myths and half-truths circulating about the dead girl, and finally to start penning some hard truths. This is not just a paean to the power of horror stories to conceal, and to expose, unpalatable realities, but also an important lesson for an age of fake news, lying Presidents and easily misdirected rage.

Directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, 2010; The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, 2016), this is essentially, like the book on which it is based, horror for teenagers. It comes, however, with that double-edged, bittersweet nostalgia familiar from It (2017) or  Summer Of 84 (2018), as it plays out the formative childhood fears of today’s adults.

Synopsis: Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, Halloween, 1968. Fleeing bully Tommy, teenagers Stella, Chuck, Auggie, joined by Chuck’s older sister Ruth and their new friend, the draft-dodging Ramón, break into the abandoned Bellows mansion where, at the end of the nineteenth century, an immured young Sarah Bellows is said literally to have poisoned children with her stories, whispered through the walls. Leaving with Sarah’s old story book, aspiring writer Stella sees a story (about Tommy being turned into a scarecrow) write itself into the book in real time. With Tommy genuinely missing (and his varsity jacket now on a scarecrow), Stella and Ramón watch another story appear, and arrive too late to Auggie’s house to prevent him being taken by a corpse whose toe he has inadvertently chewed. Now aware that all who were in the Bellows house are now cursed to meet storied dooms, Stella, Ramón and Chuck arrive in time to save Ruth’s life (if not her face) from hatching spiders. Researching Sarah at a local hospital, they learn that she was imprisoned, institutionalised and tortured by her family for attempting to expose that their paper mill was poisoning the local water. Chuck is absorbed by a monstrous woman of whom he had dreamed. The self-reconstituting ‘Jangly Man’ chases Ramón to the Bellows mansion, where Stella lifts the curse by promising Sarah to write the true story of her mistreatment.

Anton Bitel