Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – Film Review
by David Turpin
Directed by André Øvredal
Starring Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush
In her interesting true crime-whatchamacallit The Red Parts (2007), the American writer Maggie Nelson comments: “In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things [stories] distort, codify, blame, aggrandise, restrict, omit, betray, mythologise, you name it. This has always struck me as a cause for lament, not celebration”. This humble correspondent often thinks back on this passage when confronted with the endless rhetoric of ‘classical storytelling’, and the ‘need for narrative’ that has thoroughly colonised contemporary film-making, film writing and film viewing. Despite all the noise, films aren’t really about stories at all: they’re about images, sounds, ineffable moments.
And so we come to André Øvredal’s largely harmless teen-targeted horror yarn, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, itself derived from a series of children’s books by Alvin Schwartz. Schwartz’s books – and in particular Stephen Gammell’s evocative illustrations – have made an indelible mark on certain generations of American youth, but remain a niche concern in this part of the world. Øvredal’s film seems unlikely to make the same level of impact, but it’s a reasonably entertaining sleepover diversion – and an inadvertently fascinating artefact of the incompatible twin fixations for explicatory narrative and pure sensation that define the contemporary ‘blockbuster’.
On the one hand, the film – with a screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman, and a nebulous production credit for Guillermo Del Toro – is some kind of high watermark for the prevailing rhetoric of The Story. Its very conceit (a book that pre-emptively ‘writes’ the gruesome fates of a group of young people in small-town America in 1968) is predicated on the idea that stories are the organising principle of human experience – to the degree that they may actually be a matter of life and death. On the other hand, the actual film itself is simply a string of images and moments. That many of them are fairly effective seems a refutation to the idea that a successful film – particularly a successful horror film, or a successful youth-oriented film – has anything much to do with storytelling.
Confronted with Schwartz’s extremely bitty source material – many of his best stories are little more than one page long – the Hagemans have made the admirably bold decision to create a single, continuous tale, rather than take the more obvious portmanteau approach. The result is, nevertheless, highly episodic, with a number of mildly scary sequences that could easily be excerpted to serve as short films – or, more likely, YouTube clips – without any surrounding architecture. Whether a highly episodic continuous feature is more rewarding than an anthology piece is probably a question for the metaphysicians, but the film does at least make some effort to characterise its youthful heroes in a way that would not be possible with briefer vignettes.
Until around the one-hour mark – after which point it seems that every line of dialogue is shouted – there are reasonably appealing performances from Zoe Colletti and Michael Gárza as Stella and Ramón, two shy souls who make the rookie mistake of sneaking into a haunted house and retrieving a fusty old book that once belonged to a supposed child murderer. In terms of characterisation, the fact that Colletti’s character has been given stock mother issues instead of stock father issues feels like a breath of fresh air in father-fixated contemporary American cinema – though that probably says more about the phallocentrism of American culture than any great ingenuity on the part of this film.
While the creatures and creepy-crawlies are certain to thrill twelve-year-olds, it’s difficult to know who the film is addressing when it tries to pass itself off as (oh yes!) an allegory for the Vietnam War and (oh no!) an exploration of the healing power of articulating one’s truth. It’s tempting to speculate that the former comes courtesy of Del Toro, whose visually memorable The Shape of Water (2017) was also… something… something… Cold War. In any event, it seems much more likely that scare-hungry young viewers will turn up for the creepy walking scarecrow rather that the lip-service history and sociology, and on that level they likely won’t be too sorely disappointed.