Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) by André Øvredal
Review by Lydia Creech
The summer I broke my wrist by falling backwards out of swing at the height of its arc, I also discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. My mom was dropping my brother and me off at a day camp that had the aforementioned swing set; a NES with Double Dragon, the first Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros 2; a DVD of Finding Nemo, which got played every day that summer; a cassette of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast soundtrack; and a bookcase with these Fucked Up books. I vividly remember lying on my stomach on the wood-panelled flooring, propped up on my elbows, studying Stephen Gammell’s deeply disturbing illustrations. I couldn’t understand how those images existed in my extremely pedestrian world, where the worst thing to happen was the result of clumsiness and a childish loose grip. Regardless of the stories they were attached to – which I remember mostly as collections of urban legends, little black jokes, and gross-out tales – they felt like glimpses of the other side, something dangerous. I think every Millennial kid who stumbled across this series has a similarly vivid recollection.
So, it follows that the Guillermo del Toro-produced movie should be a huge, nostalgia-baiting hit for a certain segment of the audience aged, oh, 22-37? People who had a childhood nightmare or two inspired by these collected tales? Someone tell me why this movie’s frame story is set in 1968?
The challenge of adapting an anthology series lies in finding some sort of convincing frame to contain everything. For some reason*, screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman chose to take us back to Halloween 1968, when a trio of outcast besties, and a Latino drifter boy, break into the town’s requisite haunted house and find the scary stories written by the requisite mad witch, that mysteriously start coming true (ooooooohhhhh). Every night, a different story is written right in front of their disbelieving eyes (in BLOOD, no less (ooooooohhhhhh)), and a different friend DIES. This carries on into the next week, right up to the election of Nixon (*I think we found our reason??? Yes, this era’s shitty president has similarities to the last era’s shitty president, very cleverly observed. I keep seeing positive reviews praising it for its Vietnam allegory, and it makes me mad because what the fuck does that have to do with our childhoods and today? We're not even properly taught Vietnam in school. That's not OUR generational trauma.)
The friends desperately scramble to find out what this witch’s deal is, which includes a trip to the local mental institution and some research in the stacks of the medial archive, which includes a wax cylinder recording (which is an interesting sound format that I got excited about as an archivist, but I also thought: “why do these kids know about this????”). They uncover a dastardly family conspiracy, of which the “witch” was just a convenient scapegoat (isn’t that always the case with witches?), and it turns out she’s been writing horror stories as some sort of misplaced revenge. Problem solved!
“Stories hurt. Stories heal.” goes the film’s opening (and closing-ish) lines – in true Screenwriting 101 fashion, they tell us thesis in the first 5 minutes. As a film critic and general consumer of stories, I am actually very in favor of this angle: Let’s examine the stories; Let’s examine the tellers.
At a very basic, conservative level, horror exists for cautionary tales, communicating cultural taboos (don’t eat people, e.g. “The Big Toe”). In a real world where justice is often miscarried, in horror stories, the punishment is swift and brutal and fits the moral crimes (a girl’s supposed vanity gets a come-uppance in “The Red Spot”). Don’t go into the woods, that sort of thing. These are hurtful stories. We delight in them. When the teller is the maligned, accused daughter-witch, the act of telling become a healing act, the only tool left for the powerless to use. The resolution of the film is in an act of truth telling: investigative journalism. Our main girl character, an amateur storyteller in her own right, tells the REAL story of the witch, which sets her and everyone else free. These are healing stories. We’re supposed to delight in them.
Recently, I read “The Husband Stitch,” by Carmen Maria Machado, which draws heavily from another Alvin Schwartz (author of the Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark series) story, “The Green Ribbon.” It’s a surrealist meditation on all sorts of urban legends and who they’re aimed at and why (also reminded me of the menacing atmosphere of Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”). The parallels it draws, between frightening stories for children and teenagers and what’s truly scary as adults, work here in a way that the film Scary Stories cannot manage, due to the authenticity of the authorial voice.
In From the Beast to The Blonde, Marina Warner traces the transmission and transmutation of fairy tales from the male writers to the mouths of old wives and nannies and Mother Goose figures. It’s a disguising move: when your controlling messaging is delivered in the tongue of a woman, it goes down easier with your intended audience. I find it fascinating that the (male) director and screenwriters and producer communicated these “scary stories” through a quasi-sympathetic “mad” woman AND the rebuttal in a young girl character. “It’s time for the rage to STOP!” she screams at the witch, which, as an old lady in the body of a 25 year old, in The Year of Our Lord 2019, I think “fuck youuuuuuu.”
There has to be a way to string a half dozen of Schwartz’s stories together and to both make it feel delightfully shivery like it did when you were a kid and make the whole thing feel relevant to the audience you’re trying to hook. Some of the individual story sequences work quite nicely (the ones I could remember the iconic ghoulies from, mostly), but overall I couldn’t see what the filmmakers were going for. It felt like the wrong choice to set it in a time so far removed from the source material (the first book came out in 1981) and childhoods of the surely intended audience. It felt like the wrong choice to place the stories the mouth of a “crazy” lady. It felt like the wrong choice for horror filmmakers to ultimately disavow horror stories. There’s a lot of fucked-upness in the world right now, as is, and putting the film safely 50 years in the past robs the scare power these stories could have communicated, like they did for a little girl with a broken wrist, studying pictures that promised something she wasn’t gonna like, but looking anyway.