Movie Review – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Adapted from the book by Alvin Schwartz, this film is a more effective one than the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017). Despite taking place in the late 1960’s, it also says more about our current times than most films have done within the past year. It might not achieve what the title suggests in being all that scary or terrifying but like most films touched by Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro, it ends up being a rather cool and thrilling, creature feature. Unfortunately, like It, the film’s script isn’t all that great in developing the characters and making it much more than superficial glimpses into these people’s lives and the town and time in which they find themselves.
What disappointed me about It was that it started out strong with a truly nightmarish and cruel death of a little boy. As the movie progressed, nothing that followed matched that level of nightmare and cruelty. It got to a point where I stopped seeing the supernatural monster as even a threat. Not that I wanted to see children die, but no other of the main children died after that initial one, which took some of the teeth or bite out of the whole thing. That’s not the case here. Some of the main characters are taken out, which helps to establish the stakes or the fear that the threat wasn’t just a one-off. It’s not to say that the children in that 2017 film had no reasons to be afraid but as a narrative, it got frustrating to see how ineffective the threat was, as it went along.
How the film comments on our current times is through its political backdrop and how that relates to the story that is revealed by the end. The film is set specifically in the year 1968 in the week before the election of President Richard Nixon. There have of course been plenty of comparisons of this current administration with that of what happened during the Nixon administration. The backdrop also includes that of the Vietnam War, a very controversial conflict that involved a lot of lies. The current administration is one that has been plagued with lies. The story revealed by the end here is one that was covered up with lies. The current administration has made immigration its key issue, kicked off by the demonizing of Latinos. This film involves a Latino as a pivotal character facing similar demonizing.
Zoe Margaret Colletti (City on a Hill) stars as Stella Nicholls, a teenage girl living in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. She lives with her single father. She still has issues about not having a mother, which makes her a bit of an outcast. She does have friends though, two male friends who know that nothing romantic is ever going to occur. They instead like to hang together. She decides to go out with them on Halloween in costume, not to collect candy but to get revenge on a local high school bully who has been seemingly tormenting them. As a result, they get led to a haunted house where she and the other teens become the targets of an evil curse and dark magic.
Michael Garza (Wayward Pines) co-stars as Ramón Morales, a Latino drifter. His only possessions are his leather jacket and his car. It’s revealed later that he goes by the name Rodriguez because he’s a draft dodger. He didn’t want to serve in the Vietnam War. He’ll later be called a coward, but, based on what happened to him, his greatest fear is being shipped off to that war. He faces bigotry and racism, even before that fact about him is learned. Yet, facing his specific fear becomes the arc for him in this movie and Garza’s performance shows potential for him as an actor. It also doesn’t hurt that Garza is extremely photogenic.
He’s one of the main characters, but technically Stella is the protagonist. Her arc, though, isn’t really there like Ramón’s is. The same could be said about the other characters in this film. Similar to It, the film is about the characters facing their fears. Yet, it’s only Ramón though that faces a specific fear that is established as being a personal fear. There are three other teenagers in this narrative who are targets of the dark magic, but their fears aren’t established as being personal fears for them to face before the magic kicks into gear.
However, when the dark magic does kick into gear and the horror set-pieces are achieved, they are very well done. The dark magic each yields physical monsters to come after the teenagers. Those monsters are well-designed. They’re scary in that they’re creepy and gross. The problem is that the stories behind each of the monsters aren’t given any time or space to be learned or explored. It’s exciting to see them in action. I also appreciated how the film managed to give us the ParaNorman (2012) ending. It’s the more empathetic ending that again promotes a message that is quite anti-current administration.
Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, language, including racial epithets.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.