Movie Review: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” – More Goosebumps

Written by Jeremiah Greville August 15, 2019

I don’t believe that the intention with 2019’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was to completely rip off another recent film franchise…but well, that’s exactly what happened. The plot is extremely similar to 2015’s Goosebumps, and even closer still to the 2018 sequel, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Both movie franchises are based on books that bear the same name, and both revolve around a group of kids finding a haunted book and unleashing something evil inside. The difference? While both films are suitable for younger audiences, one is a comedy and the other is a straight up horror film. Luckily, this time around it’s full-on fright. Don’t let the idea of a younger-skewing scary flick spook ya — Scary Stories is surprisingly solid.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark stars Zoe Colletti as Stella, a bookish young girl who loves to write horror stories. On Halloween night, in 1968, she and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are on the run from a bully following a prank gone wrong. Enlisting the help of mysterious young drifter Ramon (Michael Garza), the four kids eventually make their way to an old house to hide. There, they find a haunted book of scary stories, and unleash an evil they’ll never forget. Scary Stories also stars Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, and Gil Bellows. It was written by Dan and Kevin Hageman, directed by André Øvredal, and filmed in St. Thomas, Ontario and Petrolia, Ontario. It’s based on the children’s book series of the same by Alvin Schwartz.

“Do you want to see a haunted house?”

I never read the original Scary Stories series of books as a kid. While I devoured horror stories wherever I could find them, it was a series I was surprised to learn, quite recently, that I had totally missed. Despite all of the Goosebumps books, the Stephen King novels, and various horror collections I had growing up, I didn’t even know such a series existed. To see online now how popular — and formative — it was for so many is quite an eye-opener. All of this is to say that, while I know what it’s like to grow up with scary stories and have them shape you, I don’t have that same connection to these particular stories that many do. I’m coming to this film as an outsider, with fresh eyes. And even as an outsider, I was impressed.

Despite being both a ghost story and a collection of various campfire tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is really a monster movie. This fits, considering that it’s produced by Guillermo del Toro, who also worked on the story. As the film progresses, the protagonists are beset by monsters that are culled from their deepest fears or tales they heard as children. And each manifestation is delightfully unnerving, using well-worn tropes to produce unsettling takes on old stalwarts like ghostly widows and living scarecrows. They’re never overly obscured by the shots or the lighting, and the film seems to honour its own rules and offer real consequences and escalation for the action. It’s a well-crafted horror film, and a great way to introduce young fans without patronizing or talking down to them.

“Stories can’t hurt you.”

And by that, I mean that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes itself seriously. While it lacks the adult subject matter of many horror films, it doesn’t skimp or hold back with what it offers. This is really important for younger viewers, because it means that the filmmakers are taking them seriously as well. It’s not suitable for small children, but could be exactly what many pre-teens and younger teenagers are looking for. And it honestly feels a bit strange to argue this point, since Scary Stories is good enough to appeal to adults and those nostalgic for the book as well. When you make a good piece of genre-fiction and take the work seriously, the audience can be surprisingly wide. In the end, we all just want good movies. Good stories.

It helps that the actors are all doing their best. The young leads are more archetypal than anything else, and there’s little in the way of character work, but they’re still good on screen. The Skeptic is believably skeptical, the Jokester is reliably funny, and the Mysterious Sexy Dude is suitable smouldering. Austin Abrams plays one of the most cartoonishly-evil high school movie bullies in years, and yet it doesn’t pull you out of the film. The adult actors are similarly solid, but less is asked of them in the long run. To say any more would spoil some fun turns in the film that hammer home just how seriously it takes its own rules. Actors also play the monsters as well, breathing even more life into the practical effects work on display. While the CGI isn’t always the best, it’s not overly-used and doesn’t detract from the overall effect.

“Told you it wouldn’t disappoint.”

But there are some gripes I have, and one of them is the use of silence to build tension. It’s exhausting. It’s one of the most over-used tools in the modern horror toolkit, and it needs a rest. When the sound drains out in several scenes, we know exactly what’s about to happen, and instead of being surprised we’re just punished. I don’t like being forced into awkward silence with a group of strangers. We all deserve to eat our unhealthy movie snacks with the full confidence that we’re not bothering those around us! I go to movies to sit in a dark room and shame-eat in secret! Don’t make me quite-chew, movie! Right??

Right?

Just me, eh? Okay…

But despite some minor complaints, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is legitimately good. It will scare many adults that are looking for a decent horror film, and will probably delight young fans who aren’t used to being treated with respect in the media that’s offered to them. It is disturbingly similar to the recent Goosebumps films, but it doesn’t rely on comedy to undermine or soften its more disturbing moments. This is a horror film for the whole family, and that’s no longer a dirty thing to say. It won’t do much to frighten veteran film fans and isn’t aiming to change the world, but sometimes that’s okay. Not all scary stories need to.

My Rating. 6.5/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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