Everyone loves a good ghost story, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has several ones that remind me of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? on steroids! Don’t let the August release date fool you, this is a surpassingly frightening horror movie! It takes the very practice of passing along scary stories generation to generation, and explores the far reaching effects that the power of story has in a manner that it as insightful as it is visually terrifying. Directed by Andre Ovredal with a superlative screenwriting and story team including Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark relies upon a more classical approach to a horror movie by building upon old fashioned ghost stories. You know, the kind that you sit around the camp fire or on the floor of your childhood sleepover and tell one another. These are stories that have been shared and passed down so prolifically that they feel alive. Ghost stories are such a part of our childhood and teenage years, and this film explores the idea of these stories coming to life. A terrifying prospect. Despite the one-dimensional characters, this movie keeps the audience engaged because of the incredibly fun plot and nightmarish visuals. And no, the end of the movie is not tied up with a nice little bow. Traditional narratives follow: order–>disorder–>order again, but horror often takes on an order–>disorder–>order–>disorder path. While there are elements in this movie that may predispose you to thinking that it’s an anthology like Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it is one linear narrative. Scary Stories is thoughtful horror movie that is a throwback to the tales of old, when hauntingly spooky was more important than grisly gore.
Pennsylvania 1968 on Halloween, and change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley, where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion, on the edge of town, that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories she passed along to children whom would talk to her through the wall of her foreboding mansion. In addition to passing down the stories orally, she wrote them down in book that truly immerses the reader into the terrifying plot. When a group of teenagers accidentally stumbles onto Sarah’s book of scary stories to tell in the dark, they realize that these stories are become all too real, and they find themselves strapped in the pages of these stories that transcend time and reality.
On one hand, this movie may appear overly generic to the casual observer, given the chief elements that make up the story. You have a group of misfit teens in small town middle America, lots of period nostalgia (that is thankfully not even more of the already proliferated 80s), a cursed object that torments its readers, and a haunted house. Everything that a writer needs to create a forgettable horror movie that goes directly to streaming services is here. But that is where you would be wrong to presume it is just another generic haunted house movie. The premise may not be exuding originality but the expression of the premise is. Combine the original expression of a plot template with the stunning visuals that we’ve come to expect from the del Toro brand, and you have one fantastic horror movie. Clearly exhibited in each and every scene, there are many signs that this movie was built by writers and a director who cares about the story and the audience experience. The degree to which this haunted house movie works for audiences may one day be seen in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. So many visual elements in this movie lend it to a haunted house (definitely more than the upcoming Us haunted house). Even if you did not grow up reading the Scary Stories books, you probably read Goosebumps or watch the TV version of the former or Are You Afraid of the Dark? and that is all you need to know or be familiar with. Go in with a love of good old-fashioned ghost stories, and you will have a fun time.
This is the second gateway horror movie that we have seen in the last couple years. Last year, we had The House with a Clock in its Walls, which worked as a gateway horror movie (albeit less so than this one). Ever since the TV shows referenced earlier went off the air, there has been a need for PG and PG-13 horror for younger audiences that also appeals to adults. Most of the horror movies over the last couple of decades have large been aimed at older teens and adults. The trick is to write a story that is appropriate enough for general 12-17 viewers, but still contain the macabre elements that 18+ viewers want to see. And that doesn’t mean gore, it means a thoughtful approach to crafting a fun horror movie that genuinely frightens you. Spooky atmospheres, ghostly apparitions, and tormented characters have been a staple of the American horror film from the days of Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. But in recent years, haunting production design and memorable monsters have taken backseat to schlock fests. This movie seeks to bring back the old fashioned haunted house ghost movie to foster an appetite in young audiences for the fantastic world of horror.
The central character and our character of opposition are two opposite sides of the same coin. Driving their decisions is a love of storytelling and family issues. Of course the familial issues differ greatly, but they complement one another nicely. When developing central and opposition characters, it’s important for the screenwriter to remember that often both characters need to share some common traits, and even common goals, but the difference is in how that desire to achieve the goal is expressed through action. There appears to be ab attempts by the movie to provide opportunities for the characters and plot to comment on the society and politics, but it’s never fully developed. Underscoring many of the scenes in the film is the 1968 presidential election and the controversial Vietnam War. I feel that the socio=political elements were not used as effectively as they could have been, so it would have been better just to leave them out as those moments don’t add anything to the overall story.
The power of story. It was Cecil B. DeMille who stated that the “greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling,” and Scary Stories takes its cue from the timeless words from a Hollywood great. Films were always about breaking ground in visual technical marvel, the almost oxymoronic photorealistic animation, or grisly violence; they were about telling stories. Not unlike the ones that got orally passed down. And these stories helped to shape generations of current and future storytellers. When you tell a story enough, it begins to have a life of its own, there is a place for some evil to be contained as we creatively explore the human condition, sexuality, gender roles, faith, psychology, and sociology through the American horror film. We already have a movie about what happens when the stories die (see my article on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), so this one takes the approach of what happens when you steel someone’s storybook but pairs that with the healing power of storytelling. To get into how and why would reveal too much about the showdown of the movie, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. At the end of the movie, you are left with wondering about the stories that you have passed down, and power to terrify or to heal that comes along with them. You may even find yourself wanting to get a group of friends together to tell ghost stories.
If you love a good ghost story, then you definitely want to catch this while in theatres to truly appreciate and experience the nightmarish visuals of the monsters and the beauty of the production design. Get into the Halloween spirit a little early with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as you enjoy a throwback to a more classical approach to the American horror film.
You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!