Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Written by:
Brent Goldman
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When you see Guillermo del Toro‘s name attached to anything, even as a producer, it’s hard not to get excited. The man is simply a genius at creating fantastical, horrifying and mythical worlds. He’s the king of creating monsters and creatures. So when Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark put his name front and center as a producer in its marketing push, you had to assume he was confident enough in the film’s quality.

Directed by André Øvredal, Scary Stories takes us back to 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town. The town is haunted by the legend of the Bellows family. Their abandoned mansion hides secrets and looms ominously over the town. Ages ago, a young and tortured girl named Sarah hides secrets and turns her life into a series of scary stories. When four teenagers stumble across her book of stories, they start becoming all too real.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark has plenty of enjoyable moments, but it just never becomes as scary or fresh as you expect. Fun and creepy moments in each of the stories that come to life balance out painfully mediocre and cliche threads that bind the stories together. While the creatures and monsters are done well, an inexplicably heavy-handed ending leaves you on a sour note.

The “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” book was essentially a middle ground between “Goosebumps” and more hardcore horror like anything from Stephen King. The movie Scary Stories pretty much follows the model set forth by its source material in that regard.

Øvredal builds the overall scary mood very well. The score, set pieces and cinematography create a haunting atmosphere. Characters like The Pale Lady, The Jangly Man and others all make creepy cameos, but none of them are terrifying. They don’t do anything particularly awful on screen and there’s virtually no gore with the exception of one spider-filled cheek.

It’s all a lot of build up and some really fun moments, but nothing that’s going to give anyone over the age of 13 nightmares. Scary Stories feels like it’s more for a middle-school aged audience than anyone old enough to see IT.

The biggest issue with Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is how much of its deeper meanings feels forced. It deploys trope after trope to move the story along.

Take the teens for example. Stella (a standout Zoe Margaret Colletti) feels like she’s to blame for her mother leaving her. She’s also a horror fanatic. Naturally, she knows the background on everything related to Sarah Bellow. Well, almost all of the background. Chuck (Austin Zajur) is the clueless goofball to provoke laughs.

Ramon (Michael Garza) is the mysterious guy from out of town who falls for Stella. And Tommy (Austin Abrams) is a jock who likes to pick on the younger kids. He has no motivation outside of a letterman jacket and a baseball bat. The young cast all do their best, they’re given shells of characters to work with.

But beyond stereotypical character archetypes, the five writers back end a message about the power of stories. It’s an important message that any bookworm, cinephile or writer can get behind and believe in. When the movie opens and closes with the line “Stories hurt, stories heal,” it’s not a great sign that your screenplay delivers its message effectively. You shouldn’t have to say the point of your film in that plain of terms.

And that’s why it’s sad to see Guillermo del Toro‘s name so prominently attached in his role as producer. He’s so talented at finding the perfect balance of meaning in subtlety and a fun adventure. Scary Stories feels like it’s not quite either.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is not a bad movie by any means. There’s plenty of fun to be had, and many (especially a younger audience) will really enjoy it. The best parts are just overshadowed by tropes and heavy-handed commentary on the power of stories and who tells them. Del Toro, still reigns as the king of creatures. He just can’t capture the same magic as producer that he has when he’s behind the camera.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark hits theaters August 8th.

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