“Stories hurt, stories heal,” teen horror writer Stella narrates over the opening of André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a movie cast very much in the mold of classic teen sleepover fare like The Goonies, Stand By Me, and Gremlins. If it’s neither as gross nor as heart-wrenching as its predecessors, neither is it without its own earnest charm. Its ensemble of teenage nerds is a genuine home run, from the hurt, intrepid Stella (Zoe Margaret Colleti) to the mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and its monsters are well-designed and competently deployed. If the score is a little flat, the plot a little taped together, there’s still more than enough gooey, icky fun to be had.
The comic relief in Scary Stories, grounded and natural, is perhaps its greatest strength. Its jokes are situational rather than observational, blessedly free of the numbing distance of quippiness. The film’s young actors deliver their lines unselfconsciously and without artifice. It also refrains from undercutting its scares with the kind of arch sarcasm you see a lot of in horror comedies like Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods. Scary Stories is more properly a horror movie which happens to be funny. Its handful of tonal stumbles are the result of choppy pacing and failed effects rather than a lack of emotional investment on the film’s part.
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Under the Bed
Much of the tension in Scary Stories derives from the transition between childhood and adolescence. The film’s protagonists are in the awkward middle of their high school years, grappling with the emotional and social issues of adulthood while still confined to the powerless world of children. Scary Stories mostly hints at these larger problems — Stella’s dad (Dean Norris) working himself to the bone to cope with his wife abandoning their family, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) and Chuck’s mother’s evident religious fundamentalism — though it depicts the racism endemic to its fictional setting of Mill Valley, PA, with comprehensive, if slightly broad, honesty.
Later, in its rush to establish a sequel hook, Scary Stories drops the ball on much of its character work and further complicates its already troubled plotting. It’s not a movie that needs a sequel, and it uses its last ten minutes not to allow the audience to feel relief or trepidation but to throw together a left-field road trip to find two missing characters and rescue them from the netherworld of the movie’s cursed storybook. It’s as tidy as it is unearned, repairing Stella’s relationship with her dad offscreen and wiping away the emotional losses of the film’s earlier acts even as it abandons its complicated dialogue on the Vietnam War to conflate Ramón’s (Michael Garza) reporting for the draft with his becoming an adult.
Contrast that, a classic farewell-at-the-bus-stop scene between a clean-cut young conscript and his lady love, with Ramón’s earlier flight from the Jangly Man, a hideous contortionist creature composed of independently mobile body parts whose every crunching, crackling step recalls Ramón’s story about seeing his brother’s shredded corpse after its return from Vietnam. The latter is so much more complex and uncomfortable, a push and pull between masculine ideas of cowardice and the terror of unprocessed grief and trauma over wartime losses. To not treat Ramón’s deployment like the tragedy it is feels unaccountably thoughtless after all the work the film does to convey the dread of being sent to war.
The Things that Go Bump in the Night
The film’s monsters are another of its greatest assets. The cut-toe woman, the Jangly Man, and the woman from the Red Room are all first-rate terrors, and while Harold the scarecrow and the ghost of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) don’t quite measure up, they’re still competently designed. In the case of the cut-toe woman and the woman from the Red Room the film also stages its kill scenes with thoughtful, anxiety-inducing deliberation. The sight of a young boy’s fingernail marks on the boards under his bed is a spine-tingling image, and the almost chillwave serenity of the Red Room’s bulbous occupant is deeply unnerving, as is the gentle but animalistic intimacy of her fatal embrace.
Cut scenes and unraveled plot threads interfere more and more as the movie goes on, necessitating ungainly exposition as when Chuck interrupts an unrelated scene to share a dream which emerges into reality a scant few minutes later. These structural issues are fairly minor on the whole, though, and easy to overlook in light of Scary Stories’ exceptional creature design, clean shot compositions, and energetic scares. It may break no new ground, but as an entry point for young movie-goers to discover the pain and catharsis of horror you could do a lot worse than Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.