Halloween seems to be coming earlier and earlier every year, or rather, it’s always with us, as horror films are regularly released throughout the year.
Still, not all horror films are strictly Halloween films, but I do roll my eyes when I see a film so fit for October like this year’s “Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark” released in August, or the beginning of September, like 2017’s “It” remake was, something its sequel is keen to repeat this year.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is based off a series of children’s horror books by the same name — my girlfriend tells me that they’re akin to the “Goosebumps” books — though I have no connection to the source material, so I came into the movie ignorant of the license.
The film takes place on Halloween in 1968, where three kids, Stella (Zoe Colleti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) run into the drifter Ramon (Michael Garza), after being chased by the resident bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams). The three welcome Ramon, who is apparently living in his car, and decide to show him a local haunted house that is about to be demolished to make room for a shopping mall. The house is associated with a legend of a girl named Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) who used to live there and hung herself in the 1800s, after she was accused of poisoning several kids she told stories to. Sarah spent most of her life miserable, locked up in a secret room in the house and was suspected of practicing witchcraft, and was declared insane by the local doctors.
During her life, she became a local attraction, as kids would break into the house to see her, and she would tell stories to them through her wall. Everyone who heard her stories disappeared. Because of this notoriety, her house became a popular attraction for the local kids to break into even after her death, especially during Halloween. That is until some kids went missing a few years prior to the film, forcing authorities to lock her house up.
Despite this, the kids are determined to break in to show Ramon a spooky time, and they manage to get in and push the plot of the movie forward, which revolves around a story book of Sarah’s that they find that writes stories all by itself about the main cast, all involving supernatural elements and horrific ends.
The film uses this book to have its cake and eat it, too, including short, simple horror stories the book series it’s based on is known for that also tie into the main plot, as whatever appears in the book also happens in real life. As characters start to get picked off — first the bully, Tommy, before it moves on to the protagonists, those that remain must find a way to stop the book and its horrific endings before they all disappear without a trace.
I came into this movie not in the mood for Halloween and I didn’t expect much from this film, but it managed to ease me into the Halloween spirit. The film’s first act is very tightly directed and packed with world building scenes that just ooze Halloween, though I do question why the film has to be set in the 1960s. Perhaps it’s because it’s just the right time period for people to break into a run down house from the 1800s. Perhaps it’s because cell phones would have ruined any element of horror, and it was preferable to set the film in a period where they didn’t exist rather than concoct a convoluted explanation as to why modern technology would not work. Whatever the reason, it does little to add to the film — it might as well be set in any time period. It can be distracting at times, as the film stars gen Z actors who feel like they’re acting more like themselves than kids from the period.
The film’s strongest elements are of course the short horror “stories” scattered throughout the film that the kids must solve, and stop before they reach their horrific conclusions, and the monsters in these stories are excellently executed, although Pollard’s performance as Bellows is a little weak. The film could’ve been just a bunch of loosely connected anthology short films, and I would have been completely happy with it. In fact, that was my main expectation of what the film was going to be.
The overarching story and cast does allow you to make emotional connections with the characters, which benefits each small horror segment in the long run, but isn’t necessary to enjoy the film, nor is it necessary in horror films in general. In fact, the horror films of old would often intentionally make their characters unlikable (think of most of the campers in the “Friday the 13th” films) so viewers would feel the exact opposite reaction — instead of being afraid for a character we liked, we would see the comeuppance of ones we felt got what was coming to them.
There’s a little bit of both in this film, and while it won’t win any Oscars, it’s a solid flick that will keep you entertained until the end, and is far superior to any other horror releases that you can expect in August.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” gets a 6.5/10