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Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark needs more scary stories

The adaptation of a classic tween book series is also about ... Vietnam.

Two kids before a creepy scarecrow. CBS Films
Aja Romano is a culture reporter for Vox, focusing on criticism and the ethics of culture. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot.

One of the first things you see in the new tween horror film Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark is a row of swastikas.

Plastered over a series of campaign posters for Richard Nixon, they flutter in front of the camera for a few moments, an apparent attempt to reset whatever expectations viewers may have for this film, ostensibly an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s classic children’s book trilogy.

Schwartz’s series, which began publishing in 1981, contained stories largely rooted in folk tales and urban legends — effectively timeless. By contrast, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is set in 1968, and awash with all the cultural anxieties and social issues of the era: racism and white supremacy, controversy over the Vietnam war and the draft, and the fraught politics of a presidential election year in which a segregationist won 13 percent of the vote. These real-life horrors loom over the small Pennsylvania factory town of Mill Valley, where a group of teens discovers an old book that writes terrible fates for the town’s inhabitants.

When one of the teens steals the book, it begins to magically write a series of gruesome scary tales, one for each member of the group. Summoning a cadre of terrifying monsters, depicted vividly enough to satisfy most picky horror fans and nostalgically enough to satisfy fans of the original books and their famous illustrations, the stolen volume bends its rage towards the terrified adolescents — and the movie never lets us forget that its victims are mainly teen boys, draft-aged, vanished.

On the one hand, the film’s social commentary isn’t that much of a surprise. It’s produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, who gave us one of the best “horrors of war” films ever created in 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and his movies frequently focus on the real-life horrors that fuel our deepest fantastical fears.

On the other hand, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on a children’s book series famous for its indelible horror imagery and campfire-tale aesthetic, not a place you expect to find heavy social themes.

But the film, directed by Trollhunter’s André Øvredal, leans all the way into the chance to tell a story beset with cultural anxieties of the past that strongly mirror those of the present. It’s far more like a classic piece of young adult fiction than the juvenile fiction it’s adapting; its focus isn’t on kids, but on teens who are coming of age in a turbulent, complicated, and often maliciously unjust world.

Their supernatural monsters, in contrast, are culled from juvenile fears and fantasies. The resulting folkloric aesthetic makes Scary Stories’ brand of fantasy all the more effective as fun visual horror. But on a thematic level, it creates a discordance with the film’s more adult social horrors, and the two elements never quite unify.

Scary Stories may actually need more monsters!

Unlike its source material, Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark — the movie — is not an anthology of scary stories. Alvin Schwartz’s litany of spooky stories for kids, full of fantastical monsters and new twists on old folk tales, has enjoyed a recent cult revival, as the series’ original illustrations, by Stephen Gammell, have become widely recognized as horror masterpieces. Gammell’s monster designs provide the visual basis for those in the film, and they also set the film’s nostalgic tone.

The opening shots of small-town America preparing for Halloween feel like a callback to the deceptively quaint small-town milieu of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and the dark depiction of the film’s ancestral mansion is so steeped in a vintage pulp fiction ethos that the movie’s marketing team spoofed that ethos on social media:

The film’s lead male character, Ramón (Michael Garza) battles perpetual racism and antagonism from local cops. He’s a teen drifter living out of his car and grappling with the specter of Vietnam when he meets local nerd and horror buff Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), and her group of friends.

Stella has a different set of personal anxieties than Ramón, but winds up identifying with the town’s 19th-century social outcast, Sarah Bellows. According to local legend, Sarah was imprisoned in her family’s mansion for the crime of ... being albino ... and told the local children stories through the walls — stories that sometimes came true and led to horrific ends for the children listening to them.

Shortly after linking up with Ramón, the whole group gets trapped by the local bully in the heart of the Bellows’ creepy vacant mansion. There, Stella finds Sarah’s journal, in which she’s written, with immaculate blood-red calligraphy, creepy stories of strange monsters. Stella takes the journal with her when the group escapes — and she and her friends soon discover that the book itself has begun writing stories about each of them in turn.

Here’s our lovely Sarah, as she’s depicted in the original illustrations for Scary Stories, by Stephen Gammell.

The first to go? The bully, who meets his fate at the hands of Harold, a terrifying evil scarecrow brought to life by the book and given a faithful but brief treatment in the film. After that, every teen who was in the mansion finds themselves targeted by the book’s Final Destination-esque takedown. Augie receives a visitation from the terrifying “Big Toe,” a variant on a familiar folk tale with a kettle-sized twist. Chuck’s older sister Ruth, a blond stereotype who gets unfairly roped into the plot, gets the film’s gross-out moment when she’s treated to the “Red Spot,” the stuff of spider-filled nightmares.

The Spielbergian teen ensemble is rapidly becoming a recent nostalgic horror cliché, and this group checks most of the boxes, complete with the Smurfette syndrome — Chuck’s older sister doesn’t really change this dynamic — and a heavy reliance on walkie-talkies to communicate. Ramón’s presence alleviates the homogeneity a bit, but the movie focuses so little on the group dynamic that the teens ultimately feel as if they were assembled solely in order to provide our monsters a pool of people to pick off one by one.

There are only six kids, though, and while Sarah Bellows, a ghost drawn from the original book series, is sort of the film’s Big Bad, I found myself wishing for more monsters — or at least more time with the ones that do appear. Harold the scarecrow is perhaps one of Scary Stories’ most well-known monsters, but like the film’s other threats, he’s treated more as a concept than a character; he’s tossed in without a lot of larger development, and he’s really only granted a moment or two to shine. In that sense, Scary Stories does feel like an anthology; each monster gets its disparate vignette.

But most horror anthologies commit more fully to their vignettes, even if they are short. Scary Stories very clearly wants to tell some sort of larger story. And here’s where it falls flat.

Scary Stories leans on its social allegories, but with little conclusive meaning

As the friends race to save themselves, Ramón draws suspicion from local police who think the newcomer may be responsible for the town’s disappearances. It all makes for a pretty light plot — but the subtext is full of violence, again drawn from the real world. We all know just how badly this could turn out for Ramón.

Above all, Scary Stories seems to want to say something about the Vietnam War and racial injustice, but the movie does very little with those topics beyond their mere presence as background elements. That makes what could be a straightforwardly creepy, delightfully fun bout of scares difficult to discuss. Do we talk about how the real world and the movie’s fantastical horrors do and don’t intersect? Are we meant to read them as a kind of equivalent exchange?

Oh, no! She’s being fat in your general vicinity!
CBS Films

Interpreted traditionally — that is, reading them purely as folkloric campfire stories with no modernity attached — the monsters of Scary Stories are relatively straightforward metaphors for our confrontation with strangeness and frightening social irregularities. Consider the bulbous, stringy-haired monster known as “the Pale Lady” — the main reason she’s scary is that she’s a really fat woman who wants to hug you. Which is to say, she’s the kind of figure who’s scary when you’re 11 or 12, the original target age for the Scary Stories oeuvre.

And that’s fine, if fatphobic, for this kind of movie, except that Scary Stories also has larger ideas about social difference and systemic injustice. Trying to map the Pale Lady onto any of them doesn’t work. Moreover, the standalone nature of the film’s individual scares don’t add any thematic weight — for example, we never know what in Sarah Bellow’s warped childhood might have led her to fixate her fears and later her vengeance upon a scarecrow or a nest of spiders. Those things just don’t matter; consequently, neither does the film’s muddled moral.

The film also presents Ramón’s character as someone who’s already had to deal with the atrocity of war, perhaps the worst horror a person can contend with at any age. But this detail, too, is just sort of tossed in, and it’s ultimately hand-waved away at the end. It’s hard to know where Øvredal, del Toro, and brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman (who share screenplay credits with del Toro) were going with all this.

I would like to have focused more on the film’s fun, kiddish, often whimsical depiction of its monsters, which feel organically eerie and true to the surreal spirit of the books themselves. But I kept getting distracted by its vague trappings of symbolism with no follow-through. And with all of that symbolism in place, to see so much of it unaddressed, if not completely undermined by an ending that seems to undermine the film’s implications about race, violence, and war, made Scary Stories feel underwhelming.

Still, given that I was mainly expecting monsters with a side of more monsters, I can’t complain too much. I got what I came for, and this is certainly not the first horror film to serve a sloppy social allegory along with its chills. But I’d have preferred either a smart, sharp social allegory that fully committed to its socially tinged premise, or else a purely scary, fun, and deliberately unchallenging haunted house romp built around a cursed book and a lot of classic horror tropes.

In this case, the combination results in a lackluster presentation of what the original Scary Stories understood so well: that sometimes the best scary story is the one that’s only trying to scare you.