“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” horror movie review

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!

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“The Shape of Water” film review

Absolutely enchanting! Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a beautiful modern fairy tale told through a classical means. From the provocative first scene to the endearing final moments, this film explores the human condition in an innovative way that highlights the spirits of kindness, generosity, and love. In a film that could have so easily played out like many other-worldly science-fiction love stories, this story demonstrates the power of cinematic storytelling full of brilliantly developed characters and excellent direction from Del Toro. Positively gripping. The Shape of Water provides audiences with a fresh perspective on the “monster movie” genre by taking you on a whimsical journey into the belly of a government research facility during the Cold War where you meet characters you love and love to hate along the way. As with many of his other films, Del Toro once again crafts an imaginative experience through the creation of memorable characters grounded by solid writing, direction, and cinematography. It seems like “genre films” are becoming a thing of the past, because so many want to exist in multiple planes; however, for all the elements at its heart, The Shape of Water is a classic monster genre film but breaks new ground.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mostly isolated mute young lady who works in housekeeping at a remote, underground government research facility near Baltimore. With only her starving artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to keep her company at home and her close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to watch over and speak for her at work, she leads a rather mundane life but longs for music, adventure, and romance. Taking place during the Cold War in 1962, Elisa’s encountered the strange and questionable over her time in and out of cleaning labs. Her nondescript life will be forever changed when she discovers the lab’s newest secret–a mysterious amphibian-like creature who lives in an aquarium tank. Over the days, Elisa feels compelled to visit the creature as the two of them develop a trusting bond. When the creature’s very life is at stake, Elisa must work quickly to construct a plan for his safe evacuation.

The Shape of Water has one of the most innovative openings to a film in that it juxtaposes a serene, calming yet mesmerizing sequence of underwater shots during the opening title sequence against a rather provocative first scene. Del Toro will successfully have your attention for the entirety of the film. It isn’t often that we get fairy-tale like narration at the beginning of a monster movie, and Del Toro’s choice for the beginning narration was absolutely perfect. It not only provided strategic exposition, but set the tone of the film. What we are about to watch may contain elements of monsters and mysteries, but it is a modern romantic fairy tale. Horror and science-fiction have often been used as conduits for filmmakers to explore the human condition and all its imperfections and growth; so by combining elements from both to create an innovative monster movie, Del Toro provides audiences with a fantastic opportunity to use the film’s diegesis as a mirror to our modern lives. Although the “beauty and the beast” style love story is central to the film, the film also comments on topics such as race, marriage, and class during the 1960s. There is also a side story that alludes to how members of the LGBTQ community were treated in the workplace and within the community. An incredibly comprehensive plot that never loses focus on the main story.

What an excellent cast! Sally Hawkins brings such endearing and powerful subtlety to her mute character. Her commitment to Elisa is so exquisite that you will swear that you can hear her voice through her sign language. Much in the same way we explored interspecies communication in last year’s Arrival, we witness just how the movement of hands and facial expressions know no bounds when establishing relationships with those with whom we cannot verbally communicate. In many ways, this movie is a combination of Beauty and the Beast, TV’s Swamp ThingArrival, and a little Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hawkins’ exceptional performance may very well land her an Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a win. Doug Jones’ creature is a brilliant combination of monster and lover. From the moment you encounter him, you will feel a human-like connection to his character. Like with Hawkins’ Elisa, Jones’ creature exhibits the power of subtlety. That seems to be a common element of this film: subtlety. So often the techniques of the pioneers of cinema are forgotten. Hitchcock proved over and over again that the camera itself can create suspense. Of course, he took many of his techniques from silent cinema where the camera was instrumental in visually communicating so much. Del Toro utilizes this power of the camera to not only visually create emotions but to work through actors to allow subtle powers of character to enhance the experience of this movie.

Beyond our central characters, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) have mini-movies of their own. And indirectly, their mini-movies have an impact on the larger story; however, these side stories never eclipse the central plot and only serve to bolster the overall experience. Spencer’s character enables audiences to explore marriage in the 1960s and Jenkins’s character provides a platform for discussion regarding how ostracized members of the LGBTQ community were before more modern times. There is also a scene where a classy looking black couple was denied seating at a diner. So many societal themes that can be used as a framework through which to understand the time in which this story takes place, and now the characters can be used to explore modern themes as well. Each and every chiefly supporting player has a significant impact upon the central diegesis of The Shape of Water. Del Toro took special care in integrating every element and making sure each aspect of the story was never just filler or for shock value. Each character, each scene, each camera angle moves the story forward.

The reality of love and relationships juxtaposed against an imaginative backdrop grounded in a literal view of life in the 1960s comprise this world created by Guillermo Del Toro. Whether you enjoy an excellent monster movie or old-fashioned romance, you will enjoy The Shape of Water. The brilliance of this film can be found in how this modern fairy tale is told through classical means. I also enjoyed the references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and dramas that can each be seen in the plot of this film. No image is ever wasted in Del Toro’s film. If there is one negative critique, the second act is a little drawn out and could have been trimmed a little, and some added suspense would have been appreciated in the second act as well.

“Crimson Peak” movie review

CrimsonPeakNo flowers in this attic. From the studio that pioneered the horror film back in the early days of cinema, comes the truly avant-garde German expressionist film Crimson Peak. Universal and Legendary Pictures provide us with a thought-provoking classically produced horror film that contains prolific imagery that invites interpretation, even from the most veteran of film scholars. Visionary director Guillermo Del Toro lives up to his reputation as a master of the macabre. Although the dialog and acting are weak, the film is beautifully shot and will constantly have you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what is about to happen. This is definitely one of those horror films that will undoubtedly make its way into film appreciation classes because of the vast material there is to dissect and explore. There is also a very self-reflexive element in the movie that is quite fascinating to think about. Not your traditional Halloween fair or ghost movie, this one part ghost story and one part mystery film is still a remarkable addition to the horror library because of the adherence to the very essence of what makes a horror film great.

Crimson Peak is about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a wealthy engineer in Buffalo, NY who is swept off her feet by the charming old English money Baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Following tragedy in Edith’s life in Buffalo, she marries Sir Thomas and moves to the countryside estate of Allerdale Hall in Cumberland, England with Thomas and his highly aristocratic sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). Despite Sir Thomas’s family name, he and his estate, built upon clay mining, are virtually bankrupt. Hoping that she can help to revitalize Thomas’ family estate, Edith begins to move her assets over to England; however, after a series of encounters with specters of the night in the dark and dank mansion, she begins to feel like something is terribly wrong and her very life may be in danger of meeting the same fate as the ghosts and ghouls.

One of the most noticeable elements of the movie Crimson Peak is the commitment to a truly classically produced horror film in the vein of German expressionism and the avant-garde. Interestingly, it is highly appropriate that Universal Pictures released this film because the founder of Universal Carl Laemmle made it a staple of early horror films released by the then fledgling studio. Although there is no one single definition of what indicates a German expressionist film, common characteristics are: using extreme distortions in the production design to indicate inner feelings or subtext, a very dark and moody style of filmmaking, strategic placement of lighting to create harsh shadows, unique and emotional architecture, and creating a sense of disorientation. Tell tale signs of this cinematic influence in Crimson Peak‘s production design can be seen in the very design of Allerdale Hall. Due to the very artistic nature of German expressionism, there is also a high degree of avant-garde because of the experimental production style, particularly in how it relates to the mystery at the center of this movie.

Although there are many positive elements in this film, some of the negative elements are the underdeveloped dialog and, by extension, the acting, lack of exposition, and at times sloppy editing. Common in German expressionism and avant-garde cinema are these characteristics. Note, that does not excuse the film for not delivering but does help to understand why they can be found in such a high budget movie directed by such an accomplished director. Had the dialog been better developed and even fifteen more minutes of exposition (or backstory) has been added, then I feel the acting would have increased in quality and delivery. As far as the occasional sloppy editing, there is no explanation and could have definitely been carried out with more finesse. Part of what makes this such a beautifully macabre film is the cinematography and production design. There are even sequences that will genuinely make you squirm and cringe at the highly visceral action with a hint of gore.

If you are looking for a traditional ghost story, this is definitely not the movie for you. To quote Edith, “the ghosts are a metaphor.” However, if you are looking for a great movie that embodies the thrills and chills of the Halloween season, then this is one to catch in theaters this month. Because of the expressionistic style of filmmaking, I can definitely see the advantage of and recommend watching it in IMAX (provided it’s the 2D version). It has a little of everything that a well-written horror film needs: death, romance, disorientation, and mystery. For the filmmakers or film scholars out there, prepare to have your mind stimulated as you attempt to interpret what the various symbols mean beyond the more superficial plot of the story.