Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Directed by André Øvredal; adapted from the books by Alvin Schwartz
Produced by Entertainment One, CBS Films, Sean Daniel Company
August 9, 2019
The Handle of the Blade
Genres run in grooves.
Subgenres run in more well-worn grooves.
That is the reason why we know that the informant calling from the phone booth, told by the authority figure to “stay right there and I’ll pick you up,” is a dead man. That is the reason why we know that the older cop partner with a week to go until retirement needn’t have bothered saving all that money for his boat. That is the reason why we know that when you put the masked serial killer down, you had bloody well not drop the knife and stumble away, sobbing. Grooves are what happen when stories insist on going to the same places that prior stories have gone, and for all our love of originality, they are not entirely bad things. Familiarity has its pleasures too.
So while your friendly reviewer would very much love to have some groundbreaking work of staggering originality to tell you about today, he is nevertheless perfectly happy to tell you about a work that is only fair to middling in his estimation, constructed out of a veritable tool box of elements he has seen before, that nevertheless delivers the goods it intends to in perfectly respectable style. He is aware that many genre folks, encountering the work he is about to more or less praise, will use multiple synonyms for “moth-eaten,” but he is here to tell you also that it is literally impossible to have a genre that is entirely made up out of what connoisseurs call the cutting edge. The cutting edge, he tells you, is entirely worthless unless you have a solid handle on the blade; especially when you’re considering what this work is: entry-level horror for tweens and teens. In short, if you’re too sophisticated for it, you’re not the target audience.
And still, it’s hard not to smile from the recognition of the formula being remixed here. You have a small town: not too small, indeed, large enough to have its crowded high school, and neighborhoods, and a populace intimate enough for everybody to know everybody else. You have a group of kids who have grown up together, and in specific, a gaggle of those who are more-or-less outcasts from all the cool kids; they may include one girl, at the onset, though others may accrue as the stakes build. Their decency underlined by the provided contrast of a thoroughly rotten local bully or group of bullies (often underlined as “psychopath”) whose mission in life is to terrorize them and /or do them grievous bodily harm. There is a supernatural manifestation which the outsider kids find out about and must face on their lonesome, as their story is insane and it is unlikely that any authority figure will believe them. In some cases, the authority figures or weak or corrupt or co-opted. So it’s up to the kids.
In recent years there has been another requirement, sad enough if you consider why it has to be: it must take place somewhere in the past. That is not just an indulgence of filmmakers getting on in years. It is a function of the form being childhood remembered, not childhood experienced; it goes back to Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer, who got up to his own share of scary adventures himself. Another factor, honestly, is it is sadly no longer all that believable that kids of this age can wander their regions at will not only all day, but all night, without parents having something to say about it. Setting the story in the 80s and earlier permits the omission of that thriller-destroying invention, the cell phone; we are returned to a world where kids who needed to share vital information had to get on their bikes and go see each other. It is hard to imagine just what kind of nostalgic adventures will be written in future years (if we even have many of those), about the generation that texts, the generation that goes hunting for Pokémon in bushes.
In any event, we are talking about a general formula that was followed to various degrees, by Stephen King’s It (and its screen adaptations, both for television and cinema), by Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night, by Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, by J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 as well as the Spielberg material it cribs from, and of course, honestly, by three seasons of Stranger Things on Netflix.
From here, we arrive at Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), written by Dan and Kevin Hagerman from a screen story by Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, directed by André Øvredal, from the book series of that umbrella title by Alvin Schwartz. And it is a pretty paint-by the numbers tale of kids in 1969 who, fresh from a scary encounter with the neighborhood “psychopath” kid—by this viewer’s estimation, no worse than an asshole—break into a fenced-off haunted house of local renown, activating the curse of an old book, that once encountered, will generate “scary stories” in which you and all your friends will die horribly.
What is profoundly good about the film version, at least, is its pitch-perfect tone. Unlike, let’s say, Blumlein Films, which gather teens or college students so we can watch them die horribly, this is a movie where some may die horribly but the goal is to show the rest successfully marshalling their resources to take on the common threat: the horror story as coming-of-age story, so to speak. The events of the day, embodied by Vietnam and the sometimes frighteningly-wielded image of Richard Nixon, are pretty well incorporated. And the kids are great, pretty great, with special kudos owed one Michael Garza, as a Mexican-American kid currently living in reduced circumstances for reasons very much attached to the time and place. Garza is a goddamned star, really. Zoe Colleti, who plays Stella Nichols, viewpoint character and main protagonist, is also pretty great. There are a pair of special effects monsters—practical or CGI, I do not know and do not care—that are also worth your attention. It is still entry-level horror, more likely to elicit the enthusiasm of a Stranger Things fan than someone who actively parses the quality levels in late-period Peter Straub, but it’s a solid two hours at the movies.
One other thing. The movie also features Dean Norris as Stella’s father. Dean is the guy who played Walt’s brother-in-law Hank on Breaking Bad, and, if you insist, Big Jim Rennie on Under the Dome. He has three or four scenes, totaling five minutes or so, and, honestly, the movie is not about him. He is nevertheless worth mentioning because, even before his one genuinely emotional moment he absolutely inhabits a fellow who we know very little about, showing us that he’s sad, and emotionally exhausted, in love with his daughter and too wrapped up in his own concerns to show it well: a good man, really. Norris does this in a handful of scenes that are not about him, and it’s more than the part asked for, and you had better damn well appreciate it. He didn’t just show up, is what I’m saying.
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