WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) -
Hidden away in a lackluster box office summer is the barely promoted little gem, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, produced by the master of this genre: Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro. A PG 13 horror film with roots in the comic book genre this film is a celebration of the kind of stories you tell in a tent, while camping in your backyard, with a flashlight the only illumination in the dark.
Based on a series of three collections of horror short stories for pre-teen and teenagers by Alvin Schwartz, the screenwriters which include del Toro, weaved a coherent story using story telling itself as a solidifying factor. This storytelling theme adds layers to a story that unfolds slowly, but builds in complexity and intensity.
Rival pranks on Halloween night in 1968 Mill Valley, Pennsylvania escalate a feud between the bullying, too-cool jocks and the geek kids with an artistic slant. Tommy the leader of the nasty jocks, played by Austin Abrams and his cronies lock Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends, Ramon (Michael Garza), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck into the spooky haunted house for retaliation. He also puts Ruth, Chuck’s sister in there, after a date with her doesn’t go the way he has planned. There, Stella, an aspiring writer, finds a book of stories originally written by a former occupant of the house, Sarah Bellows. When Stella, fascinated by the book, takes it home to read; the book magically begins to write new stories right before her eyes, filling the blank pages with blood red ink.
The first story, titled “Harold,” involves a grotesque looking scarecrow named Harold. Unfortunately for the thug Tommy, Harold remembers being smashed in the head by Tommy earlier. When Harold comes to life his revenge is spectacularly fun and gruesome. As more stories are spontaneously written in the book, more characters are faced with grisly fates, in well directed intense scenes by talented Norwegian director, Andre Ovredal. The make-up and special effects, as to be expected in a Del Toro production, are top notch and the young cast is impressive as well.
Colletti as Stella and the handsome Garza as Ramon are a great duo as they try desperately to unravel the mystery of Sarah Bellows and the magical book. This romantic leading couple is another traditional story element used well here, although Stella is no damsel in distress who needs to be saved, she stands her own ground and is clearly the smartest character in the cast. The backdrop of the Nixon presidential election win and the growing strife of the Vietnam War, underscore a feeling of dread and precedent that seem to make the storytelling as a form of escape more urgent.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, with its homage to kids’ adventures films and the power of storytelling to hurt, and heal. It is much more interesting than you ever expect it to be. Perhaps I liked the film as much as I did, because I miss old-fashioned storytelling, especially at the movies, where franchise, sequels and spectacle seemed to have replaced the power of storytelling, which sometimes works best when it is simplified and has a clear, beginning and end. It’s no surprise that Del Toro had a solid creative hand in this film; he has an almost childlike fascination with storytelling. It’s exactly what we need right now.