Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
Director: Andre Ovredal
Screenwriters: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris
Horror movies released before September generally fall into three categories: the films from directors like Ari Aster, Jordan Peele and John Krasinski that are really popular with critics and hardcore horror fans; streaming horror releases (which have opened up opportunities for filmmakers and have capitalized on the movies that studios don’t want like The Cloverfield Paradox), and; the big studio pulp horror films and franchises that are almost always a mixed bag. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in a weird place on this spectrum.
The big names behind the film are writer/producer Guillermo del Toro and director Andre Ovredal, who is most known for The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It was also released by Lionsgate, produced by CBS, and features a cover of “Season of the Witch” by Lana Del Rey. Del Toro and Overdal are enough to intrigue horror nerds, and general audiences are driven to the theater for a spooky movie with a pop star song.
The film itself reflects the conflict of the conceptual appeal of the film, and it makes it really confusing to pinpoint who this film is supposed to be for. While it is packed with incredible visual aspects that showcase the talents of the filmmakers behind it, the mediocre dialogue and boring plot progression constantly take the viewer out of the movie. There’s also an anti-Trump theme at the heart of the film that is about as subtle as the pro-Trump message in The Trump Prophecy.
Ruth Myers, Patricia Larman, David Brisbin, Roman Osin, and all of the art/makeup/effects people deserve a lot of credit for their work in bringing this story (or these stories?) to life. The creatures in this movie are the best part, unsurprising for a del Toro project. The designs and surreal effects are not only convincing but also super creepy, though there are moments where shots are a bit on the nose like introducing an object just because it’s going to be used within two seconds, or framing a TV with Nixon right in the forefront of the frame. Despite this, there are a handful of incredibly well executed shots that build the impending terror. Scary Stories does a good job of combining slow burn horror with jump scares that mostly work, which is impressive for a big studio horror.
The anti-Trump/anti-Alt-Right theme is presented through the 1968 US presidential election, a couple of racist, fascist characters, and the violent, malevolent rich. There’s a campaign poster for Nixon that replaces the ‘x’ with a swastika, close ups of him being nationalistic and saying he doesn’t want to bomb people (Nixon would go on to bomb Cambodia until 1973, wihch killed over 100,000 and destabilized the nation), and we watch the election results come in. This is all placed right in the audience’s face and seems mostly detached from the plot. The monsters could represent the physical manifestation of the anxiety surrounding a crooked, war-mongering, fascistic candidate, but the characters never give that impression. The entire thing almost feels like an afterthought, or even pandering to more socially conscious audience members.
While the plot isn’t as bad as the dialogue, it’s still not great. It unfolds about how you expect it will unfold once the introductory portion is over. There aren’t any characters that stand out as anything more than bland movie archetypes for teens to project onto. The main characters are semi-romantically involved for no reason, and it’s hard to understand who they are as people outside of the background exposition they vomited in various scenes. There were a number of cheesy lines, and some really lame ones that only serve to re-establish what we already know.
It’s tough to judge this film because of the many factors of good and bad, but having enjoyed it more than I loathed it, I would recommend giving it a try if you can get past the downsides of the writing. The visual aspects, the most important part of a film, are really enjoyable, and it’s decently creepy if that’s why you go to horror films.