Saturday, December 21, 2019

Holiday Gift Guide: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Alvin Schwartz made R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike possible. Although they far eclipsed him in terms of fame and merchandising, he was the favorite gateway drug of choice for a generation of young adult horror readers. His three short story anthologies (largely inspired by folklore and urban legends) continue to post strong backlist sales, thanks in good measure to Stephen Gammell’s now iconic illustrations. Thirty-eight years after the initial publication of the first book, several of Schwartz’s tales have been cleverly adapted in Andre Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, co-produced and co-adapted by Guillermo del Toro, which is now available on DVD for all your holiday shopping needs.

It is Halloween 1968 in rural Mill Valley, PA. Richard Nixon is poised to win his first presidential term, so things aren’t all bad. Stella Nicholls and her fellow horror fan high school pals have prepared a satisfyingly effective counter attack for when bullying Tommy Millner inevitably comes looking for them. Fleeing from the number-two-smelling jock, they take refuge in the car of Ramon Morales, a teenaged migrant farm worker “following the harvest.” He and Nicholls are both rather shy, but they still have instant chemistry.

Since it is Halloween, Morales drives them to the local haunted house, once owned by the proud Bellows family. According to legend, young Sarah Bellows, the “different” daughter, was kept locked in a secret room by her cruel parents, without any human company. Nevertheless, people would sneak into the house to hear her tell her scary stories. Of course, bad things were said to happen to her listeners afterward, especially when she continued the practice as a ghost. Unfortunately, the tall tale turns out to be true.

Devoted fans of the original anthologies might take issue with the approach taken by Øvredal, del Toro, and screenwriters Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman, because it elevates the framing device to the primary narrative, instead presenting Schwartz’s stories as Sarah Bellows’ tales, which unfold is real life, tormenting her victims, as they magically appear in her journal. However, for viewers not invested in the Schwartz trilogy, it is a shrewd way to shape the material and build towards a legitimate climax.

Arguably, this concept maybe wouldn’t have played out as well without the screen charisma of Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, playing Nicholls and Morales. They are refreshingly earnest and their chemistry is based on the degree to which they identify with each other, rather than sexuality. Colletti has some surprisingly poignant moments with Dean Norris, memorably playing her single (abandoned) father Roy. Frankly, there should have been more of them together.

Further credit should go to the art and design team, because the late 1960s period details are spot-on. The shifting color palettes of cinematographer Roman Osin are also quite striking and many of the creature effects quite distinctively evoke Gammell’s art. This is particularly true for “The Pale Woman,” from Schwartz’s story “The Dream” and the “Harold” the scarecrow, who originated in his own eponymous story.

The unsubtle commentary regarding Nixon and the Vietnam War is unnecessarily distracting, but the structure and dark Americana vibe really elevates the film above many recent Stephen King adaptations. Honestly, the two It films should have been more like this. Yet, there is also an innocence to the film Øvredal wisely never undercuts. Highly recommended for fans of Schwartz and nostalgia horror, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is now available on DVD.