In Theaters Now entries give insight on films currently in theaters. There is a brief review, followed by a deeper dive WITH SPOILERS behind the cut.
As an experience, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark is a delightfully creepy tale. Based on the legendary book series illustrated by someone who very probably hated children and wanted them to lose sleep, the film creates a narrative out of the otherwise disparate and well-loved stories. The Wendigo (my fave!), The Big Toe, and a few others I’ll refrain from mentioning are present. The story structure is simple: taking place in Halloween 1968, some kids who trespass into a local haunted house and steal a book of ghost stories that belonged to the local crazy lady must deal with the aftermath. The book’s stories, written in blood, almost always kill the protagonist, and there are both old stories and new ones that appear as events unfold. There are haunted houses, creepy music boxes, mental hospitals, a jerk bully, and all the classic fare.
I would recommend the film for fans of horror, the original book series, and people looking for a thrill. But I stress: just because it’s rated PG-13 doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for children. One family had a 4-year-old present, and while he was chattering away before the movie, I hope his lapse into silence was because he fell asleep and not into a state of paralytic horror. Bad Parenting Decision, Random Family.
Although the movie is a delightful and terrifying romp, it didn’t have the emotional depth I was hoping for. I mention this because when Guillermo Del Toro’s name is attached to something, I expect an emotional payoff. André Øvredal directed the film and I know he knows how to tell an emotional story because he made The Trollhunter. That isn’t to say the movie isn’t worth seeing, but if you’re looking for Deep Meaning Subtext as I did, you’ll leaving feeling a bit let down.
For more in-depth discussion involving spoilers, dive below the cut!
The movie’s strengths are in its effects and moments of cinematic tension, which genuinely had me crawling inside my own hoodie. The Red Room scene in particular made effective use of creeping horror rather than jump scares, although those appear too, and very effectively. Also, since the creatures aren’t exactly ghosts per se, the rules of horror movies do not apply so the world feels fresher, the scares less telegraphed. Since the movie takes place in the past and has an ensemble of kids, it will draw comparisons with IT and IT:CHAPTER TWO, which is a bit apples-to-oranges. Social issues are also brought up, as the story takes place during Vietnam, on election night. Production value is lavish and in some cases, quite beautiful.
The framing device of a book of horror stories is also an interesting twist on how to bring the otherwise unrelated tales from the books to life while avoiding an anthology format.
Unfortunately the movie feels a bit like two movies pasted together – on the one hand there’s a genuinely interesting bildungsroman taking place for four different kinds of teen in 1968, a time ripe for exploration. Stella (Zoe Coletti) is a shy, bespectacled girl obsessed with horror movies (me! It’s me!). Chucky and Auggie, her friends, are likewise social pariahs whose attempt to retaliate at the local jock asshole on Halloween lands them in hot water. Ramon Rodriguez is a drifter living out of his car.
Unfortunately Colleti’s acting was jarringly off-key at times, especially in later scenes requiring a lot of emotion. Some of her lines landed with an almost audible thud – “You don’t read the book! The book reads you!” from the trailer being the worst example I can remember. The other kids are fine (Michael Garza, playing Ramon, has future lead man written all over him) and even quite good, especially Austin Zajur as Chucky and Natalie Ganzhorn, as his sister Ruth.
The Missed Opportunities
As mentioned, racism rears its head early in the movie. Although the obvious example is Tommy spraying ‘WETBACK’ onto the Latino Ramon’s car, the more subtle example is an exchange that takes place between the Sheriff (Gil Bellows) and Ramon. It would be easy to dismiss the exchange as a Sheriff who is suspicious of strangers, but what’s really happening is Ramon is being told ‘You’re not like us, so you’re not welcome here. Move along.’ There’s also an exchange where someone assumes he, as a Latino, must carry a switchblade.
As a character, Ramon feels like a missed opportunity. When he explains he lives out of his car because he’s following the harvest and is therefore a migrant worker, that made sense and was appropriate for the time. It also meant representing a previously ignored or unexplored American population. It also made him the inhabitant of a world very different from Stella’s, as she is still living in the protective sphere of her father and her preferred fantasies – she’s a bit sheltered and therefore more susceptible to believing in ghost stories, whereas Ramon doesn’t have that luxury. But later, it’s revealed he’s on the run from the draft because his brother was killed in Vietnam. Even worse, at the end of the movie he gets on the bus to do his duty when in all likelihood, he escaped the curse of Sarah Bellows to go die in the jungle.
Stella’s story also has little payoff. She and her father are dealing with the aftermath of her mother leaving, which does color some of her decisions and her interactions with her father later, it doesn’t quite come to fruition. Her call from the Sheriff’s office should have been more impactful and just didn’t land with me.
A more interesting story than all these events happening within a few nights with kids running hither and thither to escape monsters might have been a more thoughtful examination of how escaping into scary stories helps people deal with the horrors of real life. All these kids are set up as needing that escape: Auggie’s mother is divorced and more interested in her boyfriend than spending time with her son, Stella is introverted and into horror, Chucky is straight up weird, and Ramon is dealing with his brother’s gruesome death in Vietnam. The time frame could have been stretched out over months as these kids tell each other stories from the book in attempts to reconcile the real with the imagined.