Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Scary Stories: Keep Telling Yourself Its Only a Kid’s Book

Some of the best horror stories come from folklore. After all, that is basically what urban legends are. In the 1980s, Alvin Schwartz taught that lesson to legions of budding horror fans. As a result, his beloved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels became some of the most frequently challenged books in American school library history. This year, Schwartz’s work will be the subject of two films: a live-action adaptation produced by Guillermo del Toro coming later and Cody Meirick’s documentary, Scary Stories, which releases today on VOD.

Until he wrote the macabre anthology trilogy, Schwartz was basically a hack writer with scores of forgettable titles to his credit. Sadly, he only lived to see the beginnings of the Scary Stories phenomenon. There is no question his books paved the way for R.L. Stine (who appears in the film, happily giving Schwartz his due) and Christopher Pike (who does not).

A lot is made of efforts to ban the Scary Stories from school libraries, clearly with the hopes of making Bible-thumpers look like crude boobsies (to use Mencken’s term). However, you have to give credit to Sandy Vrabel (Vandenburg), a former PTA president and a one-time leading Scary Stories foe, who appears in extended interview segments, sounding calm and rational throughout. Meirick also earns credit for treating her fairly.

Stephen Gammell’s eerie and admittedly sometimes gory illustrations are another major focus of the film. Frankly, for many fans, his images are probably even more important than Schwartz’s words, which made the publisher’s decision to release an anniversary edition with new art so perverse. Yeah, sometimes we can really shoot ourselves in the foot.

There are probably a few too many reader testimonials in Meirick’s film, but it still features a good deal of worthy popular cultural history. Frankly, this is a tricky film to assess, because it should hold most horror fans’ short attention spans. However, if we had to pay a few dollars for the privilege of watching it, our expectations might have been higher and our response might have been duly tempered.

If nothing else, Meirick’s Scary Stories will provide a great deal of useful context to us film critics before the release of the del Toro-produced film. Honestly, it is just rather nice to see a publishing story get feature documentary treatment. Interesting but not essential, Scary Stories releases today (5/7) on VOD.