Based on the series of scary books for young readers from the 1980s by Alvin Schwartz, the 2019 film Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark is unabashedly retro horror in the best possible sense, a perfect gateway horror movie for young fans of the genre. The title may be a misnomer, I went into it thinking it would be an anthology film, but the movie is actually set in 1968, following a group of teens who find themselves in some prototypical scary movie situations.
The production design of Scary Stories is its most impressive feature, many scenes are shot in the dark providing just the right atmosphere. The 1968 ambiance was also a nice touch with recurring imagery of Nixon on the eve of the election, hovering over the proceedings ghost like. There's a Vietnam War subtext and the early days of the Rustbelt (set in fictional Mill Valley, Pennsylvania). Donovan's "Season of the Witch" plays non-diegetic as opening credits rolled conjured David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac (the film does have a Fincher vibe to it). Of course there's also the strange new sense of revisiting a time with no google, don't we look back with envy . . .
The protagonist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) writes scary stories (resembling a young Shirley Jackson) and is socially isolated although she will find faithful friends in newcomer Ramon played by Michael Garza (on the run from the draft) and school friends Auggie and Tommy. Reviews I've read have criticized these characters for not being interesting enough. But it works to the film's advantage, these are everyday kids getting thrown into extraordinary circumstances and they react with fear and bravery (Stella's knowledge of horror helps her survive).
At the same time the film skillfully utilizes the tropes of classic horror: haunted houses, scary cornfields, anti-septic looking hospitals, school hallways, and of course the vulnerable place of all - the bathroom. The scares themselves are never sanitized because there are consequences the characters have to endure.
Produced by Guillermo del Toro (who also got a screen story credit), his unique touch guides the film, especially on some of the gross out moments. The director Andre Ovredal kept the story moving along with sly references to the genre throughout. Dean Norris from Breaking Bad plays Stella's Dad and I wish the film had used him more. The 1980s made space for movies that might scare kids a little, whether it be Gremlins or The Monster Squad, but also brought fun and imagination. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does a superb job delivering the scares - in a PG-13 way.
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