Guillermo del Toro may not have planted his considerable bulk in the director’s chair for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but his fingerprints are everywhere. The film is a collection of classic horror scenarios with an undercurrent of social history. It’s scary but not-too-scary, a few gruesome moments but no buckets of gore.
The award-winning The Shape of Water (2017) was set in the early sixties, in a cold war environment that bred paranoia and cruelty. Scary Stories’ takes place in 1968, during the election campaign that would put Richard Nixon in the White House. The Vietnam War was raging; the Civil Rights movement was mourning the assassination of Martin Luther King, while George Wallace ran for President as an avowed segregationist.
The theme music could hardly be better chosen – Donovan singing Season of the Witch from his Sunshine Superman album. As the closing credits roll we get Lana del Rey’s version. This is typical of the concern with style and detail shown by Norwegian director, André Øvredal, who has responded to del Toro’s visual flair, and to the original drawings by Stephen Gammell, which feature in the book behind the film.
Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories’ (1981), drew on folklore and urban myth to create chilling scenarios that were aimed at the children’s market, but also captivated adults. The book was an instant classic that became a best-seller and spawned two sequels. Its fame was compounded by the complaints of concerned parents who tried to have it banned from libraries. By way of appeasing these critics, in 2011 the book was reissued with a tamer set of illustrations, but for Øvredal and del Toro it was obvious that Gammell’s drawings were an integral part of the package.
The story is set in the fictional town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. It’s Halloween and a trio of teenagers is doing the rounds of trick or treat. Stella (Zoe Colletti) is a bookworm and aspiring writer, who lives alone with her father, immersing herself in horror movies and pulp fiction. She also blames herself, in some unspecified way, for the fact that her mother simply picked up and left. Her companions are Auggie (Gabriel Rush), another nerdy type, dressed conspicuously as Pierrot; and Chuck (Austin Zajur), a knockabout character.
Chuck expects trouble from the local bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), and has prepared an unpleasant surprise or two for his tormentor. When these plans succeed almost too well, Chuck and his friends are forced to flee from a group of revengeful thugs. Taking refuge in the local drive-in, where George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is playing (on first release!) they meet Ramón, a suave Latino who says he is just passing through. Later it will be revealed that he is dodging the draft.
Stella leads the group to a “haunted house”, being the spooky, deserted mansion of the Bellows family, owners of the mill that gave the town its name. She recounts the legend of Sarah Bellows, the youngest daughter, who was said to be a witch. Locked up inside the house Sarah would write horror stories which she read out to children who gathered to listen outside. All those listeners would subsequently die.
By now it’s pretty clear what’s about to happen. The friends take a frivolous approach to the old house but are soon brought back into line. When Stella and Ramón locate the hidden room in which Sarah was imprisoned, the prize discovery is a hand-written book of stories. Stella takes the book home and finds its evil reputation is justified. “I’m afraid that we woke something up,” she says. Ulp!
From this point the film becomes a series of creepy vignettes as one character after another becomes a victim of the book, their fate determined by a story written in red ink by an invisible hand. Each episode is a little masterpiece of special effects, from an avenging scarecrow to a corpse reconstructed from a stew; from a red spot on Chuck’s sister’s face that grows to ominous proportions; to large, lumpen demons that close in from all quarters. The pièce de résistance is the Jangly Man, who is best seen rather than described.
If you’re thinking this seems to be a list of horror clichés and stereotypes, that’s not an uncharitable suspicion. The filmmakers’ skill rests in the way these stereotypes are reanimated in a narrative that contains a surprising number of layers. First of all, since every new American movie seems to be about Donald Trump in some oblique manner, it’s impossible to miss the constant footage of Nixon playing out on TV screens. America is just about to elect the greatest crook ever to hold the highest office, present company excluded.
In 1968 the nation was sharply divided over issues of race and class. There are racist attacks on Ramón, casually termed a “wetback”; and on the black servants who worked for the Bellows family. When it’s revealed that the Bellows were actually poisoning the town’s water supply with mercury from their mill, one can only think of Flint, Michigan, the subject of Michael Moore’s scathing documentary of last year, Fahrenheit 11/9.
There are further talking points about mental illness, child abuse, and fractured families. We’re asked to negotiate the moral dilemma of whether an obnoxious character somehow deserves his ghastly end. Even the repeated refrain, “Stories hurt, stories heal”, seems to address the increasingly fictionalised world of contemporary media, in which people prefer “alternative truths” to unpalatable realities. Finally, it’s suggested that Sarah’s murderous acts from beyond the grave are motivated by sheer rage – the blind, unreasoning anger of one who has been brutalised and stigmatised. When we see that same blind rage seeping through the cracks in a broken polity it’s almost a relief to blame it on the supernatural.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Directed by André Øvredal
Written by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro, Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton, after a book by Alvin Schwartz
Starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Austin Abrams, Natalie Ganzhorn, Gil Bellows
USA/Canada/China, rated M, 108 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 September, 2019