I love scary movies. Always have. When I was a kid, a local TV station would run a 4 o’clock movie with themes and, around Halloween, it would be horror movie week. In my memory, those films would be from the British movie studio Hammer. Frequent lead actors would be Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing along with several familiar looking British actors whose names I never knew. There would be stories of vampires and werewolves and witches and demons and curses. The violence was minimal and usually only suggested. The scene of driving a stake in the vampire’s heart showed the hammer raised up high and brought down with the sound of a “thunk” as it struck the killing blow, then the vampire’s wide-eyed surprise at being bested by a mortal. You wouldn’t see the hammer actually hit the stake or enter the vampire’s chest. Any blood was minimal and only showed dripping from the vampire’s lips or the two perfect punctures in the victim’s neck. These movies, which were a decade old by the time I saw them, enthralled me and gave me the shivers as well. Modern horror usually doesn’t hold back on the gore. Each new scary movie also seems to be an effort to establish a franchise with low-budget and high-profit films with numerous sequels cranked out. “Paranormal Activity,” “Saw,” “The Conjuring,” “Insidious” and more have cinematic universes that have been very profitable, however the films they’ve produced haven’t actually been very scary. My biggest issue with modern horror (whether psychological or supernatural) is they don’t actually quicken the pulse of anyone other than the investors that bankrolled these films. Now, Guillermo del Toro has produced a horror film based on the book “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and it appears poised to introduce a series of sequels. Given this first installment in a likely series, I have hope for these films.
Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colleti) lives with her single dad Roy (Dean Norris) in the small Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley. It’s 1968. The war in Vietnam is raging as are protests against it. Nixon is about to be elected president and it’s Halloween. Stella goes out with her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) for one last night of Halloween pranks as they are getting to old to dress up and Trick-or-Treat. The high school jock and bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) has picked on this trio for years and Chuck is looking for revenge. As Tommy and his friends drive down the street past the friends, one of them grabs their bag of goodies that is actually filled with old dirty clothes. Auggie and Chuck begin pelting the car with eggs. As Tommy backs up the car, Chuck throws a flaming bag of poop through the open window, landing in Tommy’s lap, causing him to wreck the car. The bullies chase after Stella, Auggie and Chuck on foot. The three friends hide in a drive-in theater, getting in the car of Ramon Morales (Michael Garza). Ramon is passing through town, following the harvest as a migrant worker. After some conversation, Stella offers to show Ramon a real haunted house. She guides him to the Bellows house. The Bellows established the town in the late 19th Century and built a papermill. The youngest Bellows child Sarah had a physical deformity and was locked away in a secret room. The legend is she would tell stories through the wall to children that would visit the house even though she was never seen, and these stories would cause the children to die of a mysterious illness or poisoning. While exploring the house, Stella and the others find the room where Sarah lived, and Stella finds her book of stories. Soon, new stories begin appearing in the book, featuring names of Stella’s friends who begin to disappear. Stella, Auggie, Chuck and Ramon scramble to find a reason for these disappearances and a way to stop them.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a fun and frightening film. It understands that horror can be lighthearted while also causing the pulse to quicken. It isn’t an easy mix, but writers Dan and Kevin Hageman and director Andre Ovredal find the right mix of laughs, silliness and terror to make the film an easy watch and easy to recommend you watch.
The characters in “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” make the film relatable and, to an extent, believable. Zoe Colleti plays Stella as a depressed and broken young woman, dealing with a mother that abandoned her and her father and feeling that she is responsible. We aren’t told why she feels that way and it doesn’t matter as she isn’t. Watching this young woman carry the weight of what she feels is her unlovability around like a ball and chain is painful. Colleti never overplays the drama in her character’s life, but it’s always there just below the surface. As the story plays out, we see it break through as Stella expresses that every bad thing that has happened to her, and now her friends, has been her fault. While I was never a teenage girl, I do remember thinking all the bad luck I experienced in high school was because I was a terrible person that didn’t deserve happiness. While those years are far behind me, I still remember the sting of rejection when a girl didn’t want to go on a date or not being selected as drum major of the marching band. While I didn’t have a vengeful ghost causing my friends to disappear, I could relate to how Stella felt and that is thanks to Colleti’s performance.
The look of the film adds to the scares. The spirit of Sarah is represented by a dark shadow that slides along the walls and ceiling, filling the room with a dread of what’s to come. The creatures that appear are grotesque in their rotting and/or deformed shapes. One, the Jangly Man, may cause nightmares for younger viewers. The creature can fall apart into its components: Arms, legs, torso and head. It can then reassemble itself if it needs to get somewhere its full body cannot. It has a voice like nails on a chalk board and it moves in a way that is indescribable. There is a pot full of body-part stew, a pimple exploding with spiders, a boy puking straw and more. It is a film that works hard to make you squirm in your seat and it usually succeeds.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, brief sexual references, thematic elements, language, racial epithets and terror/violence. We see a person stabbed through the back with a pitchfork with the tines poking out the front, but there is no blood. The pimple/spider scene may have your skin crawling. A character eats a mouthful of stew that contains a human toe. There are at least two creatures that appear to have been buried and raised up partially decomposed. There’s a brief scene showing one of the characters fishing poop out of the toilet. One of the creatures is rammed by a car into a garbage truck. There’s a creature that looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy let himself go and grew long black stringy hair. The racial slur “wet back” is said a couple of times and we see police assume the Hispanic character is a criminal because of his race. The sexual reference is so mild I don’t remember what it was. Foul language is scattered and mild.
Early in this review, I complained about watered down horror franchises that lack any real scares. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” manages to have some truly tense and frightening moments while still being rated PG-13 and being what is likely the kickoff of a horror franchise. Whether the quality and popularity of future chapters in this sage are worthy of critical praise and your entertainment dollar will depend on the quality of the story, the acting and if the scares are kept at a high level. Guillermo del Toro had been hit and miss over his career, creating masterworks like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water” while also putting out the overwrought but beautiful “Crimson Peak” and the busy and underperforming “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.” I want to see more stories that scare me in the dark of a theater, and I want del Toro to tell them to me.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” gets five stars.
Several new films open this week and I’ll see at least one of the following:
47 Meters Down: Uncaged—
The Angry Birds Movie 2—
Blinded by the Light—
Where’d You Go, Bernadette—
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