SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is exactly what Goosebumps should have been, a semi-hard PG-13 romp that not only took several of the stories we grew up on and combined them into one tale, but also took itself seriously. Goosebumps was too goofy and very, very light on the scares. Probably had something to do with Jack Black’s weird awkward impersonation of R.L. Stine…anyway, we aren’t here to talk about that mediocre movie, I want to talk more about this one. This is extremely well shot, acted, and just well made in general. When seeing previews for this (the marketing was kind of s0-so) in general, everything about it looked absolutely bland. While I only remember a few of the stories from those short story novellas, I knew that they were pretty dark and gloomy for kids my age, and everything advertised about the movie seemed too…I don’t know….light and campy? Thankfully, the finished product is much better than advertised, as I thought it was one of the most effective PG-13 horror films in a very long time.
If I remember correctly, I think there were a total of three of those Scary Stories books and I think I maybe owned one or two of them. So in the advertisements of these movies, I could really only pick up The Scarecrow and The Big Red Spot, and didn’t really know any of the other references. I just know that while the books had these fantastic drawings and stories of dread, none of it was ever really depressing, just a tale to give you some minor chills in the night before you went to bed, if you even wanted that. So why the hell I expected this to get an R rating and was a little disappointed when it was just PG-13 I will never understand, because this series of movies (this is the second weekend it is out, and has made enough to warrant a sequel), should never be are. They are exactly what they need to be, a medium to medium-hard PG-13 movie that provides some actual genuine scares. No cheap little jump scares with music accompaniment here…well, maybe one or two, but they are more earned than you know.
The film is gorgeously directed by Andre Ovredal, who I should’ve had more faith in, as I enjoyed his previous two films, Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Because he doesn’t sacrifice story for scares. This movie is about an hour and 48 minutes and he spends at least the first half setting up very strong character development, from all the kids involved. The film takes its time to get to the scares as well, clearly setting up the story before the first monster pops out. The plot is basically very, very reminiscent of Goosebumps to be sure, as a girl, two of her closest friends, and a strange but handsome new kid go to a haunted house on Halloween night. The girl eventually finds a book of a past child murderer in the house, a book where this murderer would write some truly scary stories. Legend told that if you asked this murderer, named Sarah Bellows, to read you a story, it would be the last story you ever heard. The main good girl protagonist asks that very question. The book begins to write new stories on the blank pages, and it involves her and her friends. Like Goosebumps, it combines several of the stories into the over all narrative, and the girl and her friends have to find a way not to be “killed” and sucked into the story.
But here is where Goosebumps went wrong to the point where I’m okay with Scary Stories basically “borrowing” it’s plot. Goosebumps didn’t have any scares, it was just goofy and fun “frights” and with Jack Black involved, it never took itself seriously. Plus, Goosebumps used WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY too many narrative threads and characters from the books in the first too films, it felt really, really over stuffed. We only get four here. This film takes itself very seriously, as there are very serious consequences for some of our characters. Not to ruin the ending, but the only thing I was sort of disappointed with the movie was there was several lines of dialogue at the end that gave hope to some of the tragedies that had just happened, maybe undoing some of what happened. The film clearly sets up a sequel, but hopefully the filmmakers have some time to figure out something to do without cheapening the effects of what had happened. Supposedly though, this to be an introduction film to really hard scary films though for teenagers, and I have a feeling they might actually do the undone route in the sequel. Who knows, but I will definitely be there for the journey.
There are mostly unknowns in this film, unless you are a really big fan of Breaking Bad like I am, but even then you only see Hank in a couple of scenes. This is the kids show, and all of the kids do a spectacular job of acting, especially the main girl protagonist, played by Zoe Margaret Colletti. The film uses a mixture of practical effects and CGI and I have to say it mostly did a pretty great job. With the except of some parts of the Jangly Man, which they actually had a guy that could contort his body all weird, those scenes looked good, except when they had to use CGI to contort his body where that performer couldn’t, then it looked a little weak. But yeah, this is actually week two of the film being out, and I initially wasn’t going to see it for the PG-13 rating and the marketing didn’t really impress me. But then a couple of friends saw it and recommended it, and it got a pretty decent Rotten Tomatoes score, so I decided to give it a chance, and was happy I did. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t even close to the greatest PG-13 horror film of all time, far from it, but it is an enjoyable, really well shot (the cinematography is top notch) and acted little scare fest that happened to pull it all off because it took itself seriously. Really wish that Goosebumps had done the same thing, maybe it will if there is a third?