Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

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I saw one of the film critics in San Diego that loves horror movies, as he was walking up to this screening. I said, “You’re going to love this movie, aren’t you?” He replied, “Well, I loved the books.”

That was the first I knew of the books. When it came to scarecrows as a child, the only experience I had with them was the John Mellencamp song Rain on the Scarecrow…not the books by R.L. Stine and the drawings of Stephen Gammell. And boy did the scarecrow in this movie look creepy.

I was happy to see it was PG-13, because I think this is the perfect intro to horror films for teenagers. It’s scary, has great visuals, and is a tip of the hat to some of the horror films that have come before it. Heck, the girl’s room is filled with Bela Lugosi posters and horror lobby cards and comics. I’m guessing it’s what Guillermo del Toro’s bedroom looks like right now (he’s one of the producers and co-writers).

The movie starts in 1968, with a killer opening (no pun intended). It’s 1968, and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” is blasting out of the speakers. We see posters around town about the Vietnam War, Nixon, and a lot of older cars and buildings that look like they could’ve been in the last Tarantino picture.

A group of “nerdy” kids in the small town of Mill Valley, decide to go trick or treating one last time. Yet it’s not candy they’re thinking about, but getting revenge on the jock bullies who have stolen their bags of candy each year. It’s a lot of fun to see how that transpires, like one of the films Spielberg would’ve done in the ‘80s.

The group meets a Latino boy at a drive-in showing of Night of the Living Dead, and they all go to the haunted house in town. It’s the long-abandoned Bellows Family mansion. The Bellows created the paper mill in town, which is what put them on the map. Yet the family also had some dark secrets. Don’t they always?

Stella (Zoe Colleti) finds a book that the girl, Sarah Bellows, wrote, filled with scary stories. Rumors were that she killed herself, but before that, she’d tell scary stories to kids that showed up outside the window. Oh, and then they’d disappear. The stories are written in blood, and it’s not a good sign that the last one seems to be freshly drawn.

The Stella character is done in a refreshing way. She’s not the nerdy girl that’s picked on. Sure, she’s a bit of a loner, sits in her room and writes, and mourns the disappearance of her mother. Yet she loves her dad, and has a few friends that she cares about. It makes her the perfect protagonist. 

The movie has a few good jump scares, and the atmosphere is perfect. The visuals, even if you’ve seen a few before, are fun. Other than one segment with a kid in a hospital, and a weird looking woman approaching…it all worked. There’s one scene you get in the trailers, where a blonde teen with a pimple (and really, is there anything scarier for a teenage girl?), starts seeing a leg pop out of it. If you have arachnophobia, this might be the scariest thing you’ve seen since…well…Arachnophobia. I used to catch spiders as a kid, and it even freaked me out.

Another time, I got goosebumps when Stella was lecturing. 

Norwegian horror director Andre Ovredal does del Toro proud, with a script Guillermo helped pen (presumably without blood). 

There were a handful of things in this movie that didn’t work for me. One of those involved guilt that Stella felt about an incident in her life. Another involved a creature that made a terrific entrance with various body parts going down the chimney, and putting itself back together like something from Terminator. But as the creature continued chasing one of the kids, it got a bit ridiculous. Yet I think all of that will work just fine for the teenagers. It’s like a group of kids from Stranger Things, transported back to an ‘80s horror film. And with the chemistry of all the kids, you’ll obviously think of Stephen King’s It. 

I was nice to see a few character actors I love. Dean Norris played the depressed father of Stella, who falls asleep on the couch watching news of Vietnam. And Gil Bellows (no relation to the fictional family in the film) as the racist town sheriff. Many will know him as the young prisoner in The Shawshank Redemption, who was shot after giving information that would free Andy Dufresne (I can’t even type that name without hearing Morgan Freeman’s voice in my head). One of my bigger regrets when it comes to meeting actors, is at the San Diego International Film Festival, when Bellows was there to promote a cool gangster flick he had done. My wife was talking to him and when I came over she introduced me to him. I had had a couple glasses of wine, and was acting goofy, trying to make him laugh while reciting lines from Shawshank. I saw this look come across his face that was like — am I going to have to sit here and listen to this dingbat film critic for the next hour? 

I was slightly bothered by the fact that the kids, like all kids in movies, had walkie talkies that worked from miles apart. The ones I had as a kid, you couldn’t hear the other person if they were 100 feet away. And, this is the third straight movie I’ve seen with a barfing scene. At least in a horror movie, they usually work (especially if it’s vomit that is turning into straw from a scarecrow).

I’m going to give the movie extra credit for starting with a Donovan song,  and ending with a great cover of that song by Lana del Rey. 

3 stars out of 5.

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