Thursday, August 29, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was written by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Marcus Dunstan and Guillermo del Toro (yep, it took a whopping FOUR people to write this!). It was directed by Andre Ovredal.

The Hagemans are brothers and working partners who previously received "story credit" on Hotel Transylvania, The Lego Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie. This appears to be their first actual screenplay, and their inaugural foray into films starring actual people.

Dunstan previously wrote a slew of R-rated gore-fests, including Feast, Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (!), Saw IV, Feast II: Sloppy Seconds, Saw V, Feast III: The Happy Finish, The Collector, Saw VI, Piranha 3DD and The Neighbour. Wow! Talk about strange bedfellows! From straight up torture porn to a horror film for tweens!

Del Toro is a prolific writer, producer and director of many genre favorites. He previously wrote Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, and co-wrote the three Hobbit films. He directed Blade II. He wrote and directed Cronos, Mimic, The Devil's BackboneHellboyPan's LabyrinthHellboy II: The Golden Army, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and The Shape Of Water

Ovredal previously directed Future Murder, Troll Hunter and The Autopsy Of Jane Doe.

As you might have guessed, the movie's based on the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark book series, by Alvin Schwartz.

The books, with their terrifying tales and gruesome illustrations, quickly became bestsellers among the tween crowd. Unfortunately parents weren't as captivated by them, and Scary Stories became the most-banned book series of the 1990s. Of course outlawing them backfired, as it only made the books more desirable and increased their sales. 

I never read the books as a kid, and in fact didn't even know they existed until I saw the movie trailer. As such, I have no nostalgic connection to the material, and had little or no idea what to expect.

From the trailer I assumed Scary Stories was a kids' movie, and it is. But it's a very dark kids' movie— which is always the best kind. Of course it doesn't go as far as Saw, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it didn't pull any punches, as it featured genuine horror and wasn't shy about killing off its teen characters. 

The movie contains a couple of eye-rolling jump scares, but nothing too excessive. 
The Scary Stories series consists of three separate books, each containing twenty five or so short stories based on folk tales, campfire yarns and urban legends. 

The stories are all stand-alones, with no connective tissue between them, which made it difficult to create a movie with a singular plot. Del Toro reportedly didn't want to do an anthology movie, so he and the other three screenwriters came up with a way to incorporate the individual stories into a cohesive overarching narrative. That's a pretty tall order, but managed to pull it off and it worked out reasonably well. 

So far Scary Stories has grossed $73 million worldwide against its $25 million budget. That makes it a reasonably successful box office hit, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a sequel in a year or two.


The Plot:

It's Halloween night, 1968. Three teens— Stella Nicholls, Auggie Hilderbrandt and Chuck Steinberg— go trick or treating. They play a prank on psychotic student Tommy Milner, who's so enraged he vows to kill them. The three sneak into the local drive-in to escape, and hide in the car of Ramone Rodriguez, a young drifter who's passing through town.

Tommy and his gang spot Stella and her pals in Ramone's car, and he demands they come out so he can beat them senseless. Not surprisingly, they decline. Ramone stands up to Tommy and tells him to get lost. Tommy tells him he's made a powerful enemy this day and leaves.

Stella and Ramone begin hitting it off, to the dismay of Auggie, who secretly harbors feelings for her. Stella asks Ramone if he wants to see a real life haunted house, so the four drive to the old Bellows mansion. 

As they explore the house, Stella and Ramone discover a secret room behind a cabinet. Inside the room, they discover a musty old book of stories written in the early 1900s by Sarah Bellows. According to local legend, Sarah was a deformed young woman whose family kept her locked away inside the room.

Auggie & Chuck join them in the secret room, as Stella looks through the book. Suddenly Tommy and his gang appear, along with his date Ruth— who's Chuck's sister. Tommy locks the four teens inside the room, causing Ruth to protest. He then locks her inside as well, and he and his goons leave. 

Stella and the others try to find a way out, but they're hopelessly trapped inside. Suddenly the door's unlocked by an unseen presence, freeing them. For some reason, Stella takes Sarah's book home with her.

Stella tells Ramone he can stay in her basement, since he has nowhere else to go. In her room, Stella begins reading Sarah's handwritten book. She notices the last story's titled Harold, and is shocked when she sees it's being written before her eyes— in what appears to be blood. She also notices that the Harold story inexplicably features Tommy Milner, which should be impossible as he was born decades after Sarah died.

Cut to Tommy returning home, where his mother orders him to deliver eggs to the neighbors. He takes a shortcut through a cornfield, where he sees a hideous scarecrow nicknamed "Harold." Tommy punches, beats and generally abuses the effigy before going on his way. Suddenly he sees Harold ahead of him, and runs the other direction. Harold pops up again and stabs Tommy with a pitchfork. As Tommy staggers away, he begins vomiting hay.

Weirded out by the story in the book, Stella fears that Tommy's in danger. She convinces Ramone to take her to Tommy's house to check on him. There they find a scarecrow wearing Tommy's letter jacket. Stella says Tommy was somehow turned into a scarecrow.

She then makes the incredibly intuitive leap that she and her friends inadvertently awakened the ghost of Sarah Bellows, who's trying to kill them by writing stories about them and the things they fear most.

Ramone is skeptical, until he witnesses a new story appear in the book. This tale, called The Big Toe, features Auggie. Cut to Auggie, who's home alone while his parents are on vacation. As Stella tries to call him, he takes a bowl of stew out of the fridge and begins eating it. Sure enough, the stew contains the toe of a corpse. Auggie eats it, and is horrified when he spits out the nail (!).

Suddenly a shambling, rotted corpse appears in Auggie's house, demanding its toe back. Auggie hides under his bed, but the corpse grabs him by the legs and pulls him into the shadows, never to be seen again. Stella and Ramone arrive at the house shortly afterward and realize they're too late to save him.

Stella and Ramone then meet with Chuck, and somehow convince him the book is writing deadly stories about them. They try burning it, but it's unharmed by the flames. Stella suggests they research Sarah Bellows, hoping to find a way to stop her and the book. 

At the library, Stella sees a new story in the book titled The Red Spot. Chuck thinks it's about him, but then realizes it's actually about his sister Ruth.

Meanwhile, Ruth's about to star in her high school play. As a gal who's overly concerned with her looks, she's horrified to see she has a huge, honkin' zit on the side of her face. She runs to the bathroom and pops it, causing a huge nest of spiders to pour out of the wound. Stella, Ramone and Chuck arrive just in time to see Ruth covered in spiders. They manage to save her, but she's so traumatized by the experience she's taken to a mental hospital (!).

Stella, Ramone and Chuck then go to the hospital, hoping to examine Sarah Bellow's records. The nurse tells them to get lost, so the three sneak in while she's distracted. Chuck immediately gets separated from the other two.

Stella and Ramone find the records room, and amazingly they zero right in on Sarah's hundred year old files. They discover that her family owned the town's paper mill, its major industry for decades. Unfortunately the mill poisoned the town's water supply with mercury, killing countless children. When Sarah threatened to tell the authorities, her brother Ephraim institutionalized her and gave her shock treatments to shut her up.

Suddenly the book begins writing a story called The Pale Lady, and Stella realizes Chuck's in trouble. We then join Chuck, who's wandering the halls looking for the others. He sees a terrifying bloated woman at the end of a corridor, and is soon surrounded by multiple copies of her. The Pale Lady grabs Chuck in a bear hug, and absorbs his body into hers.

Shortly afterward, Stella and Ramon find Chuck's pen on the floor and realize he's been taken by the book. Just then they're surrounded by hospital guards and arrested.

Stella and Ramone are taken to jail, where they're questioned by Chief Turner. Naturally he doesn't believe Stella's explanation about the book, dismissing it as local legend. Turner also reveals that Ramone's last name is actually Morales, and he's wanted for draft dodging. Turner locks the two in adjacent cells.

Ramone admits to Stella that he ran from the draft because his older brother was killed in Vietnam and "sent home in pieces." Suddenly they hear a noise, and Ramone says it's The Jangly Man, a monster from a campfire story that terrified him as a kid. Sure enough, various body parts begin tumbling into the room.

As Chief Turner watches in disbelief, the body parts combine Voltron-style into the nightmarish Jangly Man. He easily kills Turner, then heads toward Stella and Ramone. The two manage to escape their jail cells, and Ramone says he'll distract The Jangly Man while Stella goes to the Bellows house to try and stop Sarah.

Stella runs to the mansion, where she's seemingly transported back in time. She witnesses the Bellows clan mistreating Sarah and locking her in the secret room, where she can never rat out their family business. 

Meanwhile Ramone steals a police car and roars off, but The Jangly Man somehow catches up with him and causes him to crash. He ends up running to the Bellows mansion as well. He hides inside, but The Jangly Man finds him and begins choking him.

Stella confronts Sarah and says she has every right to be angry about what her family did to her, but says it's time to let go of her anger and hate. She says if Sarah stops using her book to kill people, she'll promise to tell her story to the world. Sarah insists that Stella write the true story NOW, in her own blood. Stella does so, and Sarah roars as she's finally released from her torment and dissipates forever. The Jangly Man disappears as well, saving Ramone.

In the wrap-up, Stella and her father are driving a recovered Ruth back from the hospital. Stella still has the book, and in a voiceover says she's confident she can somehow use it to bring back Auggie and Chuck in the inevitable sequel. She stops at the bus station, where she says goodbye to Ramone, who's decided to enlist after all.


• The bulk of the movie takes place over the course of eight days in 1968, beginning on Halloween and ending on Election Day (Thursday, November 6). Spoiler alert: Nixon won!

Technically there's an epilogue that takes place after the election, but there's no way to tell the exact date.

 Speaking of dates, at the beginning of the movie, Stella and her friends hide from Tommy at a drive-in theater. Hmm. Most drive-ins are only open during the summer months, and have long closed up shop by October. Also, Halloween fell on a Thursday in 1968. Drive-ins were usually only open on the weekend. Whoops! 

suppose we could be generous and say the drive-in might have opened for one day only in honor of Halloween. I suppose we could say that, but I don't see why we should. 

By the way, the drive-in's playing George Romero's classic film, Night Of The Living Dead. In case you're wondering, it premiered on October 4, 1968, so its presence is justified here.

• As is typical of most films these days, Scary Stories features a truly abysmal poster. In fact it's a virtual treasure trove of terrible graphic design. First of all there's the dull, gray, desaturated color scheme, which is sure to be eye-catching in the cineplex lobby. 

Then you've got the movie title, which is rendered in Times New Roman, the most generic font possible. What's the matter, didn't the designer have Comic Sans on his computer? The only thing remotely scary about the title is the horrible kerning. They did type it in blood red though, so I guess that's mildly scary.

My favorite part though is the Bellows Mansion, which is obviously a separate photo that was crudely plopped into the background of the poster. How do I know this? Because the mansion's in super sharp focus, while the corn around it is blurred by distance. Even better, the mansion's perspective has little or nothing to do with that of the rest of the poster! Classic!

• Stella and the others are terrorized by fellow student Tommy Milner, the requisite school asshole. Tommy's a straight-up psychopath whose antics go way beyond simple bullying.

Tommy tries to run down Stella and her friends in his car, he threatens them with a baseball bat and finally locks them— and his date as well in a secret room of an abandoned house and leaves them for dead. Forget expelling him from school, he should be arrested and thrown in the psych ward immediately.

For some reason this "Teen Sociopath" character is very common in horror stories and films featuring teens. Stephen King in particular is a big fan of this odd trope, and uses it in virtually every one of his novels. See Henry Bowers in IT, Harold Lauder in The Stand and Junior Rennie in Under The Dome as prime examples.

• When Tommy meets Ramone, who's Mexican-American, he calls him a "wetback." Later on he even scratches the word into the hood of Ramone's car!

Believe it or not, they actually mention this in the film's rating, so as not to startle or trigger any sensitive SJWs in the audience. That's right, Scary Stories is rated PG-13 for, among other things, "language, including racial epithets."

So apparently that's where we are as a society today. The mere utterance of a racial slur—by the movie's VILLAIN, mind you—is too much for the extremely fragile youth of today to handle. They must be adequately warned of the presence of hate speech before venturing into the theater, lest they be taken by surprise and collapse onto their fainting couches.

• Tommy locks Stella, Ramone, Auggie, Chuck and Ruth in a secret room in the abandoned Bellows mansion and leaves them there to die. Stella and the others try to open the door, but it's locked and bolted from outside. Just then the bolt slides free, as if an unseen presence unlocked the door and freed them.

Obviously it was the ghost of Sarah Bellows who let them out of the room. But why? She literally spends the rest of the movie trying to kill them. Was it too easy to murder them all in a tiny room? Did she free them to make it more challenging to hunt 'em down?

I just don't understand why she'd seemingly help them, only to start killing them all minutes later.

• The movie's signature monster is no doubt Harold, the grotesque and malevolent scarecrow. He's even featured on the poster art, and is undoubtedly the most famous creature from the books.

That said, what's up with Harold's head? Most scarecrows have heads made of burlap stuffed with hay. For some reason, Harold's head looks disturbingly like actual moldy flesh. What the hell's it made of? The noggin from a discarded department store mannequin? An old Halloween mask? Or did Tommy's mom decapitate a hobo and stick his lifeless head on top of a pike?

I get that Harold's supposed to look scary and unsettling. But his creepy, disturbingly real-looking head doesn't seem like something a simple farm family would be able to create, and makes no sense in the world of the movie.

• Strangely enough, Tommy Milner is the first victim of the book— and he's not even one of the main characters. Seems odd to me for the movie's villain to get his comeuppance so early. That's generally something that happens at the end of a film.

I suppose once Stella found the book, IT became the new main villain, making Tommy redundant. It still seems wrong though.

• Attention To Detail: When Stella leafs through Sarah Bellow's book, we get brief glimpses of a few of the story titles. As you might expect, these titles are pulled from the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books.

• The film does an amazing job of translating Stephen Gammell's dark and disturbing illustrations to the screen. I'm crediting Guillermo del Toro for sticking so closely to the artwork, as he did the same thing in his two Hellboy movies.

The aforementioned Harold the scarecrow is a dead ringer (heh) for his illustrated counterpart. The only real difference in the Movie Harold is that he has a hollow torso, which I assume was included so he didn't just look like a man in a suit.

The Ghost Of Sarah Bellows seems to be based somewhat on the mummified creature from The Haunted House, one of the stories from the books.

The filmmakers actually improved the look of the ghoul from The Big Toe. In the story, the monster looks much like a cranky baby who needs a nap, and isn't the least bit scary. The zombie they came up with for this scene is a massive improvement. I have to admit though that The Big Toe Zombie looks a LOT like The Haunted House ghoul, which may confuse some viewers.

By far the best translation to screen is titular character from The Pale Lady. Del Toro and his crew perfectly replicated her creepy-ass face, complete with its ghastly smile, which somehow seems harmless and terrifying at the same time. Well done, guys!

• Late in the third act, Ramone's chased and nearly killed by The Jangly Man, an incredibly limber corpse who can disassemble and rebuild his body at will.

The Jangly Man's played by real-life contortionist Troy James.

James also appeared as Rag Doll in two recent episodes of The Flash (All Doll'd Up and Gone Rogue).  

• After they're jailed, Ramone admits to Stella that he's a draft dodger, because his brother was "sent home in pieces." Note that in the epilogue, we see he's decided to join up and go to Vietnam after all. 

The second he confessed his secret I KNEW he'd enlist at the end of the film. Can't have a hero who's a dirty, cowardly draft dodger! Especially in what's ostensibly a kid's film!

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is a kids' horror film that's unexpectedly dark, and doesn't shy away from the scares, making the most of its PG-13 rating. The highlight of course are the monsters, which, thanks to the influence of producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, look like they stepped right off the pages of the book. Though it's primarily for tweens, there's enough to engage adults as well. I give it an unexpected B.

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