Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Adapting a classic children’s book series that is as dreaded as it is beloved, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has a challenge in combining otherwise disparate pieces of micro-fiction. The source material consists of stories that end nearly as soon as they begin with little real substance, some so simplistic they merely ask the reader to jump out at their friends as they reach the end. The real selling point of this adaptation is to see the ghoulish illustrations brought to life – at least on that front, this is a moderate success.

The framing story carries a bit more weight than anything from the source, though that’s not enough to carry a feature film. Characters are cartoonish and shallow while the need to shoe in as many scenarios as possible leaves the entire work disjointed. Teenager Stella Nicholls is drawn to the macabre, a natural fit as the protagonist of a slightly cheeky horror film. The rest of the cast is typical monster fodder, there more to pace the scares than to get the audience invested. The one exception is Ramon Morales, who offers some light commentary on race and politics in 1960s America. It’s enough to stand out in this slight crowd but nothing beyond that, and his depth really just clues the audience into the fact that he’s the one to focus on.

Despite its attempt to offer up an overarching tale, this film comes off as little beyond a series of loosely connected vignettes. My umbrage with this is the total randomness of each encounter. The film starts strong with Harold, a terrifying scarecrow that lives on its eventual victim’s farm. Harold has a presence well before he bares his teeth and his sequence feels intrinsically linked to its target.

Every creature that follows feels pulled out of a hat. It’s clear the filmmakers combed through the most memorable designs from the books without considering how to incorporate them in a meaningful way. These individual sequences border on scary purely on a stylistic level but, as part of a larger piece, I instead found myself distracted by the total lack of symbolism. There’s no finesse, no reason why this character gets pitted against that monster. Most of the stories from the source are similarly shallow, but that’s a lot more acceptable in short form. Here, we have to sit through meandering exposition to get to the good stuff.

And don’t get me wrong, there is good stuff. On both a stylistic and technical level, this film looks pretty good. Despite their inexplicable nature, these creatures possess some gnarly designs. The actual horror sequences carry some disorienting twists – I was rarely sure how any individual encounter would end. While it never reaches outright scary it perfectly achieves ‘spooky’ – this is the right target considering its origins.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is popcorn horror with a slightly better than average visual edge. It briefly flirts with camp but drops that atmosphere when the monsters arrive, causing a stark tonal inconsistency that the film never shakes. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that the filmmakers hoped the bizarre creatures would lend a sense of surreal horror but they offer nothing to dig into. Not dark enough to be scary and not light enough to be humorous, Scary Stories is lukewarm and inoffensive but fun enough if you somehow didn’t get enough horror over this overstuffed summer.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

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