Adapting a beloved or classic literary piece has to be one of the most thankless screenwriting jobs in Hollywood. Baked in notions and preconceived ideas threaten to clash with the screenwriter’s own vision of how to depict the narrative on screen. The challenge doubles in the case of a series of short stories; they do not lend themselves well to a natural adaptation, stretched out to a 90-120 minute, plot-driven movie. That’s the issue faced by the upcoming horror film “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” based on the series of 1980s children’s series. The short tales are adapted into a coherent horror story by writers Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton, and Marcus Dunstan. The screenplay is by Dan and Kevin Hageman, and the film is directed by Andre Ovredal (“Trollhunter”). But while the resulting product is signature del Toro – angelically-conceived and impeccably-designed monsters – the story itself falls into the surprisingly tepid convention.
The setting is a small American town in 1968. The late ’60s signifiers are there – the drive-in movie theater, the diadems upon hair, and the repeated scenes of the Presidential Election between Nixon and Humphrey. Only one of those three otherwise gratuitous elements has any relevance to the proceeding—hint: it is not the political ones. A group of teens finds themselves in needless trouble. Zoe Colletti is young Stella, a thick-rimmed glasses-wearing girl whose mother vanished and who aspires to be a writer. Her best friends, “Auggie” and Chuck (Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur), are tormented by the class bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams). Chased by the latter, the three kids find refuge in the parked car of an out-of-town stranger, young Ramon (Michael Garza). Ramon and Stella quickly form a strong bond, but Tommy and his bat await. The teens make their way, ill-advisedly, to a local haunted house.
So far, so good – though there is nothing particularly compelling about the haunted house setup, there is nothing inherently clichéd about it either. The haunted house is perhaps the preeminent sub-genre of horror thrillers. The problem for “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is that it fails almost immediately to justify its own existence or anything particularly creative or inventive after the kids step through the web-laced threshold.
There are attics, creaky doorways, and creeping shadows. There is a lot of dust and a series of dungeons, clacking footsteps, and ghoulish apparitions. Most importantly, there is a haunting legend. The mythos of the narrative centers around Sarah Bellows, a before-the-turn-of-that-century citizen of the house. Legend has it, more or less, that she was locked in by her family because her existence was that of an omen – when she told stories local children died. The legend itself is not set out by the sappy Stella but, no matter, soon enough, Sarah and her deadly knack for recounting tales will make a resurgence. This is just window-dressing to get to monsters – the film caters to the visually inclined more than the plot-obsessive.
Sure enough, Stella discovers a book and, later, stories start writing themselves into its empty pages in blood. Those same stories begin to manifest in real life. The problem with the device is obvious: as Stella and company started their predictable race against the speed of Sarah Bellows’ mortal story-telling, one wonders immediately how the legend can imprint itself as the increasingly-wily children are changing it. As the kids wise up and run for it, does the page wipe and rewrite? It is the horror-film equivalent of the misleading philosophical question regarding trees falling in uninhabited forests. If the story does not play out as intended by its malevolent author, is she really that scary?
Nor is it clear precisely why the screenwriters make unlikeable their central character by having her declare, ominously but ineffectively, that “you do not read the book, the book reads you.” As far as audiences can tell, the book cannot read—it can write, sure, but Stella remains the one reading it to try to save herself and her friends.
It is not merely a matter of taking the premise of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” too literally. It is that the central spine purporting to keep the film together lacks stiffness. The source of the problem is obvious: trying to adapt source material that comes in snippets into one coherent tale. The deaths, garish as they are, emulate some of the short stories in the classic book series, with Sarah Bellow as the central spoke in the wheel. As Sarah becomes a not-so-compelling character (how many times in recent horror films have audiences seen kids rushing through a sleuth-like race against time to discover the legend of the mean old lady undoing them by digging through archival footage and speaking to other creepy older people?) then the movie itself becomes less interesting along with her.
The film does have, after all, the name of an iconic, Oscar-winning director attached to it. And del Toro is known for a particular style that delights audiences and critics alike. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” indeed, has stunning and memorable visuals. The different boogeymen that del Toro conjured are unique. They both pay homage to horror movies of yore—scarecrows, witches, and the like—while adding modern, spooky elements and adapting the renderings of illustrator Stephen Gammell. Animals sprout out of humans, and humans get turned into monsters. Those critical scenes are arresting, scary, and stressful—in a good way. They are enough to rescue the picture from oblivion. Indeed, they are a good enough reason to watch the film despite its otherwise unremarkable plot points.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” does not provide stories, and audiences do not need to tell it in the dark. But the film is scary enough and has the trademark monstrous incarnations of a legendary horror tactician of our time. Sometimes the point is not in the plot but only in the visuals, and this is one of those occasions.
“Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark” is distributed by Lionsgate and hits theaters U.S.A. on Aug. 9, 2019