Watch this as soon as you can…
Stranger Things and It appear to have started a trend for horror films about children/teenagers set in the past. If either of these disappointed you, or feel overrated, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the film for you. This new film, from producer Guillermo del Toro, is miles better than It, and stronger than the second and third seasons of the Netflix hit. It features the impressive monster design you would expect from a del Toro fantasy film, but director André Øvredal also brings some truly gruesome and uncomfortable body gore to the proceedings. The screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman is also surprisingly more thoughtful than it needed. Once these scary stories are told, you will want to hear them again.
By themselves, the monster designs and body gore are unsettling enough. The scene where Tommy transforms into a scarecrow sticks in the mind, just as he is now stuck in the fields. There are some well-timed jump scares in the later parts of the film, which sadly cannot be said for the opening acts, but body horror is where the true scares reside. The Pale Lady, a bloated, haunting pregnant woman, and The Jangly Man, a creature that can rebuild itself from body parts, are as inventive as any creature from Pan’s Labyrinth. The monsters are deeply troubling concepts that hit a nerve, but they are also fascinating. The imagination behind these creatures is remarkable, and it leaves you wanting to revel in the minds behind this film even more (this film lays the groundwork for a sequel, which will get the green light). A lot is left to the imagination too in this well-crafted horror film. One of the most uncomfortable scenes involves the painful screams of Sarah as she is forced to expeirence electric shock therapy. Even with no jump scares and no gory visuals, this film still finds ways to haunt. Of course, the visual horror is the most notable aspect about this film. Whether it is a pimple growing to the size of a cricket ball or a disassembled monster rebuilding itself, this film has very powerful, horrifying imagery that will leave you feeling uncomfortable even after the story has been told.
This film’s horror comes from more than just the monsters though. The excellent cast of child actors reflect this in their performances. Their reactions to these creatures, and what is happening more broadly, are very compelling and a large part of the reason this film is so successful. Of course, the actors needed terrific set pieces and monsters to bounce off, and the filmmakers provide them with that in abundance. Their performances make these disturbing supernatural occurrences feel less like a fantasy and much more real. The work behind the camera also adds to this convincingly real sense of horror. Cinematographer Roman Osin and director Øvredal both use low-angle shots and close ups to put you in the shoes of the children themselves. Darkness and silence are also used effectively so that the audience, like the children, do not know what the hell is going on and what will happen next. When the film is not silent, the score is excellent for turning the dial up when it comes to tension, reflecting the growing fear of the characters themselves. Point of view and perspective are essential to the success of this film; the monsters would not be as scary as they are if this film were not so immersive.
Underlying this surface horror is a sense of dread and tension. The central premise of the film is that Stella and her other teenage friends find a cursed book that not so much predicts the respective demises of all the characters in the film as it writes them. This gives the narrative the drive, a rush, towards inevitability. Akin to Final Destination 3, we are told how each character will die, and we know every character will face a gruesome fate. Each character will have their own chapter in the book. It has just not been written, yet. The film is about these children trying to rewrite their own futures, which appear set in stone, recorded in this mysterious book found on Halloween. The central premise allows for a very ominous tone as we know every character is doomed, and you often find yourself looking out for the key objects and locations related to their deaths, hoping, as the characters do, foresight will be able to save them. Rather predictably, foresight is unable to save most of them, and only the two main characters make it to the end. Nevertheless, the concept of knowing your own death is a chilling and engaging one, and this film will keep you hooked, even if it does end in a rather unsurprising manner.
The central premise also allows for thoughtful meditation on the nature of stories themselves. Stella is forced, by the supernatural villain, Sarah Bellows, to live through Sarah’s mistreatment at the hands of her family, suggesting how stories can be used to create empathy for other people, and depicting this in a very literal sense. It also poses the question of how does one react to the narratives forced upon them. Stella, Ramón and the villain are all outsiders. All of them are told that they do not belong and that they are different. The villain becomes “the monster they always said you were”, but the main characters do not. These plot threads raise interesting questions about the power of stories to shape us, and our own power to resist these stories and define ourselves.
This film is a lot more considered than required, both in its meditation on storytelling, and on the politics of late 1960s America. Screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman have also created a story with some astute and intriguing political parallels. Televisions with Nixon play in the background, and defaced election campaign posters, are some of the subtle and rightfully attentive details this film adds to what could have been a simple horror story. The film forces the audience to ask how different the Vietnam War really was from the supernatural horrors being depicted on screen, if there were any at all. When Tommy goes missing early in the film, people speculate on whether it was a monster or whether he joined the army. Perhaps both are inherently the same. Ramón not only has to face down fictional monsters, but the monsters of racism too. This film holds no political punches, and they really add a lot of depth, and many thoughtful parallels, to what could have simply been a PG rated young horror flick.
Hopefully this film will not be overshadowed in film history by Stranger Things and It, because this film is better. It is not set in the past for nostalgia’s sake, for Øvredal has something to say about the month Nixon got re-elected. Even on the surface level, the threat feels more real (children actually die in this film) and the concepts are more disconcerting. These are scary stories one wants to go back and experience again.