Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” based on a book series by Alvin Schwartz, tells the story of a group of friends who come across a book in a hidden room inside an abandoned mansion—a place with a reputation for being haunted. The teenagers realize later it is no ordinary book; whatever is written on it, in blood, comes true. Although the work, directed by André Øvredal, offers a watchable cast who share good chemistry, the monsters are memorable, and some scares manage to land, as a whole it remains a disappointment because one cannot help but suspect it is holding back.
The target audience are those in their early to mid-teens. I found this to be quite strange because the story takes place in 1968 on the eve of Richard Nixon becoming president. We see posters of Nixon all over the small town of Mill Valley (he is not liked there) and the subject of the Vietnam War is broached several times. “Night of the Living Dead” is shown at the drive-in theater. While I admired its specificity in terms of images, music, and dialogue, the work does not commit fully in delivering scares. It is a shame because it is strong when it comes to establishing build-up, but when gruesome violence is required, for instance, it only shows about half of what feels right. As a result, the experience, too, is halved. Clearly, the picture is tailored to receive a PG-13 rating.
The young cast is composed of memorable faces but not performances. Zoe Margaret Colletti plays Stella, the only girl in the group who is so obsessed with horror that she decides to take the mysterious book home so she could study it further. (Stella aspires to become a writer.) Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur portray Auggie and Chuck, respectively, and their characters are meant to provide comic relief. Last but not least, Michael Garza takes the role of Ramon, a Mexican-American who happens to be passing by Mill Valley, an outsider who must endure racism from some of the white residents and authority figures.
Each actor is given a moment to shine exactly because every character is provided a demon or monster to face. We may not know Stella, Ramon, Auggie, and Chuck in a deep or meaningful way, but we always hope for their safety when pressure is up. Unlike mean-spirited horror films, the audience is consistently on the side of those being hunted.
I found the creatures to be inspired. It is expected that when actual masks and body suits are utilized, the encounters feel all the more effective. However, I was surprised that even the CGI creatures are almost as powerful, especially the so-called Jangly Man that is capable of taking apart its limbs at will. It is one thing that The Jangly Man looks and sounds demonic. It is another that we become convinced it is unstoppable. I also relished Harold the scarecrow who appears early in the film. The manner in which it lumbers about leaves an imprint in the mind. Notice the picture’s appropriate use of silence as tension increases. At times hearing only the wind caressing the cops can be just as deafening as desperate screams for help.
There is an undercooked backstory which involves the former owners of the aforementioned abandoned house. It is the weakest link in the film; it doesn’t help that the repercussions of their actions propel our characters into a drawn-out investigation. The problem is, however, Stella, Auggie, Ramon, and Chuck are not written to be especially resourceful, intelligent, or pragmatic. They are simply ordinary teenagers who just happen to get caught up in something bigger than themselves. Thus, the investigatory sequences come across painfully contrived.