Family-Friendly Fright: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ ☆☆☆☆

When I was a kid, I read a lot of short stories, particularly ones about hauntings and horror. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a series of short horror stories for children, written by Alvin Schwartz. I haven’t read them, but the stories are popular enough that three collections were published: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (1981), “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (1984) and “Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones” (1991). The film adaptation, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” is, according to Guillermo Del Toro, a “gateway” film to both the popular stories and the possible new series of movies. The film has the right amount of fright and gore to be family-friendly and a big plus if the heroine is a girl with glasses.

We’re told in the beginning that there’s a power in stories. The narrator tells us, “Stories heal. Stories hurt. If you repeat them enough, they become real. This I learned in the very last autumn of my childhood.”

The girl with glasses, Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti),  is dressing up as a witch for Halloween. In the background, Richard M. Nixon is running for president and we see him on grainy televisions throughout the movie. She joining her friends, August “Auggie” Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur). Auggie is one of those kids who goes for something more esoteric, in this case a Pierrot costume that everyone else (except on person) downgrades to a clown. Chuck wanted to be Spider-Man, but gets to be a boy in a spider costume.

Chuck most definitely wants to have both trick-and-treat. Once they’ve gotten the treats, Chuck expects to trick one of the bad boys, Tommy (Austin Abrams). Tommy is the kind of boy that wears his letterman jacket every day and swings a bat. Mostly he beats up the scarecrow in his family’s corn fields, but later he’ll use it to out his rage on a stranger. The stranger is Ramón (Michael Garza).

Tommy and his friends are loaded in his car and they come upon Chuck to steal his bag of candy only to find it’s filled with poop. Tommy angrily goes after the threesome and they’re ready to return fire, but ultimately, are forced to flee into a movie drive-in. Stella, Auggie and Chuck take refuge in Ramón’s car. Tommy finds them, but both Ramón and eventually the proprietor of the drive-in send the boys packing. Tommy, though, isn’t quite giving up and he happens to have Chuck’s sister, Ruthie (Natalie Ganzhorn), on a “date.” If you’re date takes you out on Halloween, dump him quick. He’s a loser, even if he doesn’t end up taking you to a haunted house.

Tommy has said something that deeply wounded Stella. To cover up her embarrassment, she tells Ramón about a haunted house. The house, a mansion, once belonged to the Bellows family, but it is also the place where the only daughter, Sarah Bellows committed suicide after poisoning children. Before her death, she used to tell scary stories to children who would listen at the other side of a wall since Sarah was forbidden from leaving the house. In death, if you asked Sarah to tell you a story, she’s tell you the last story you’d ever hear, because you’d die.

Stella leads Ramón, Auggie and Chuck to the house. Chuck pranks Auggie, but suddenly sees something that spooks him. Stella and Ramón find a secret passage where they believe Ruth was hidden and Stella finds her book. Tommy follows them in and tiring of Ruth’s nagging on behalf of her brother,  Tommy locks Stella, Ramón, Auggie, Chuck and Ruth there. When they finally get out, Ramón finds his car vandalized. Although the sheriff, Chief Turner (Gil Bellows), has warned Ramón to keep moving. Ramón is forced to stay.

Reading the book, Stella realizes that the book is writing a new story and the red ink is so fresh is smears. The story is about “Harold,” the scarecrow with the creepy face, and Tommy. Tommy was delivering fresh eggs when he disappears. Ramón becomes a suspect and has to stay in town. One-by-one, all the kids who visited the Bellows mansion fall victim to a dark shadow and the realization of their worst fears. For those familiar with the stories, this film incorporates “The Big Toe” and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” From the third book, “Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones,” the movie uses “The Red Spot,” something that makes every teen’s worse acne anxiety and makes it even worse (warning to arachnophobes!).

In the end, not all the threads are tied up but there is hope for a happy ending and Stella is drawn closer to both her father, Deputy Roy Nicholls (Dean Norris), and Ramón, whose secret is revealed.

With the stories are tied together, writers Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman (and Guillermo Del Toro, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, who are credited with the story) also manage to address concerns about environment, mental health, prejudice toward Latinos and people who are different and finding courage to stand up to frightening circumstances without violence. The chills and suspense are there but so are positive messages and lessons to talk about.

One of Del Toro’s message to the audience was that this film is “creepy because Norwegians are creepy.” Director André Øvredal, is, of course, Norwegian and he’s found the right tone for a family friendly horror flick. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” opens 9 August 2019.

 

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