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In Theaters: SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019)

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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
(US/Canada/China - 2019)

Directed by Andre Ovredal. Written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman. Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Gil Bellows, Dean Norris, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Kathleen Pollard, Javier Botet, Troy James, Mark Steger. (PG-13, 108 mins)

Based on the beloved trilogy of YA books written by Alvin Schwartz and vividly illustrated by Stephen Gammell, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK takes some of the series' more famous tales of terror ("The Big Toe,""The Red Spot,""Me-Tie-Dough-ty Walker!") and weaves them into a more ambitious narrative rather than going for the anthology structure. It's also got the fingerprints of producer Guillermo del Toro all over it, especially with some of the nightmarish monsters recalling The Pale Man from PAN'S LABYRINTH and the title character in the GDT-produced MAMA, who was played by Javier Botet, called upon once again by del Toro, this time to play a corpse searching for his missing toe. Though he had a hand in shaping the script in its early stages (along with Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, the duo behind the FEAST and THE COLLECTOR franchises, as well as writing SAWs IV-through-VII), del Toro farmed out directing duties to Andre Ovredal, director of the found-footage cult hit TROLLHUNTER and the terrifying THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE. Despite the source being a series of books written in the 1980s and being in various stages of development for several years, it's a safe assumption that SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK probably wouldn't exist in this cinematic form were it not for the massive success of both IT and the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS. Comparisons are inevitable and observing that this is kinda just a more age-appropriate IT that tweens and younger teens can get a ticket to is an argument that's not without merit, but SCARY STORIES manages to be its own beast. That's due in large part to an appealing cast of young actors and it being a rare throwback sort-of project that actually conveys genuine affection for what it's doing beyond misremembered nostalgia and the resurrection of a short-lived disaster of a reformulated soft drink that anybody who was conscious during 1985 and still of sound mind today can verify that absolutely fucking nobody liked. Nobody. 





Set in 1968 in the small Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley Township with an America at war in Vietnam and in the days leading up to the election of Richard Nixon, SCARY STORIES centers on three outcast teenagers--aspiring writer and horror fanatic Stella (Zoe Colletti), lanky, sarcastic Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and goofball jokester Chuck (Austin Zajur)--who are introduced on Halloween throwing a flaming bag of shit (Chuck's, in case you were wondering) into the lap of jock bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) as he passes by them in his car. Fleeing for their lives, they end up at a drive-in showing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and hide out in the car of Ramon (Michael Garza), an 18-year-old drifter who drove into town earlier that day. Stella talks Ramon into taking them to the shuttered and reportedly haunted Bellows mansion on the edge of town, home to the once-powerful family that built Mill Valley. Tales have been passed down for generations about Sarah Bellows, the black sheep of the family and all-purpose Mill Valley urban legend who was kept in a locked room in the house after she allegedly poisoned some local children at the turn of the 20th century. While roaming around the mansion, Stella and the others find the secret room and in it, Sarah Bellows' book of scary stories, handwritten in her own blood. Stella takes the book home, where she lives with her dad (Dean Norris) after her mom left them years earlier, the cause of some cruel rumors that still persist, and finds that a new story is writing itself--in blood--in the pages of the book. Sarah is seeking vengeance for the theft of the book by punishing all who were there when it was taken from the house--including Tommy, who followed them and spray-painted a racial slur on Ramon's car, and Chuck's older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), who's secretly been going out with Tommy. Using this set-up, SCARY STORIES takes some of those more popular tales from Schwartz's books and uses them as comeuppances against Stella and her friends, like a local folklore-based FINAL DESTINATION that condemns all of them as Sarah Bellows will not stop until she has her revenge on them and the entire town of Mill Valley Township.


As a 46-year-old child of the '80s, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK feels like the kind of movie I would've seen with my dad in 1984 and still have an affectionate soft spot for today. It's the kind of "crowd" movie that you don't see much of these days, where you can sense that nervous communal tittering going across the theater when everyone knows something's about to happen. Ovredal does a really good job of playing the audience, often delivering the payoff jolt right before or right after you've been conditioned to expect it. It's about as icky as a PG-13 horror film can get, but like the books, it's the kind of grossness where the eew-factor provides much dark-humored fun (a beef stew with a toe and an eyeball among the ingredients; a seriously infected spider bite that's about to explode on a girl's face), and it works all the creepy tropes (scarecrows, ghosts, long, ominous corridors in a dark basement with something approaching from the distance) in an effective fashion. The weaving in of a Vietnam subtext lends some social commentary to the proceedings (and the setting allows the use of Donovan's always-creepy "Season of the Witch"), but the attempted contemporary allegorical implication doesn't really land, even if it adds some texture to Garza's character and helps explain why the local sheriff (Gil Bellows, presumably no relation to the Mill Valley Township Bellows) is giving him such a hard time. A film that would've been better suited to hit theaters near Halloween instead of the second week of August (it's probably coming out now so it doesn't get lost in the shuffle with next month's IT sequel), SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is a fun ride with solid scares and an engaging cast playing well-written characters, the kind of goofy horror crowd-pleaser that Joe Dante (GREMLINS), Fred Dekker (NIGHT OF THE CREEPS), or maybe Tom Holland (FRIGHT NIGHT) would've made in the mid '80s.


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