{Movie Review} You’ve Got to Pick Up Every Stitch: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

“This is why I don’t read books.”

Just a couple of months ago, I posted on Twitter after seeing Annabelle Comes Home that, “If Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is even half this good, we will be living in a new golden age of babysitter/kids on bikes horror.” The good news is, Scary Stories is actually even better!

Ostensibly another in a recent spate of nostalgia-tinged genre properties—I’ve seen it called It-lite—the obvious hook for Scary Stories is seeing those messed up Stephen Gammell illustrations that traumatized us all as children translated onto the silver screen. And the good news is, they translate them well. Pretty much every creature is solid, with the Pale Lady being probably the MVP of the show in the design department.

Photo Courtesy of CBS FIlms

Here’s the thing, though, just as those illustrations are what drew us all in—even as they repelled us and gave us nightmares—they were only part of the staying power of the books. The Scary Stories books were always about the telling more than they were about the story. The stories in question were, after all, salvaged from folklore and urban legend, a stew of the familiar and the absurd.

That’s why the stories were written the way that they were, with parenthetical instructions to the reader on how best to deliver the scares to an audience. It’s why they were accompanied by references to the folkloric and oral traditions from which the stories were drawn—a crash course in horror lore, just as they were a gateway book of fun, spooky stories.

How many of us actually read the book aloud to friends around campfires or at sleepovers I couldn’t say, but for those of us who were morbid, lonely kids like the ones in the movie, the Scary Stories books were like having a morbid, lonely friend to tell scary stories with—one just creepy enough to still feel thrillingly dangerous. (Thanks, Stephen Gammell.)

The movie remembers all of that, stringing together several favorites from the books inside a framing story about a haunted book that writes its own scary stories—a premise sufficiently similar to 2015’s Goosebumps movie to raise a few comments. Except, of course, this movie could not be more different than that one in its treatment of the subject matter, and, ultimately, it’s not about the haunted book or the stories at all: it’s about the telling.

Scary Stories is a film about telling stories, and what the stories we choose to tell say about us, and about the power that stories have to shape our lives and our perceptions. Even that cringe-worthy “in Soviet Russia, book reads you” line from the trailer actually means something more as the film plays out than it initially appears.

Photo Courtesy of CBS FIlms

I said up above that Scary Stories was another movie in a long line reaching out cash-hungry hands for our nostalgia dollars, but of that spate, it may put that nostalgia to the best use. Rather than becoming nostalgia porn for a bygone era or a mechanism to remind us of other movies, Scary Stories uses its ghost story structure to conjure a parable about the scars that the past leaves behind, no matter how fondly we may remember it.

The unexpected parallels between the war in Vietnam and the spooky events of the film—the movie takes place in 1968, the “very last autumn of our childhood,” as the narrator puts it—are driven home time and again by what’s on TV, by posters and graffiti, by subplots and characterizations. At one point, as the kids are riding the bus to try to solve the ghostly mystery at the heart of the film, the radio DJ is exhorting his audience to resist the war and “stop sending our children to die.”

These themes are seldom subtle (Sarah Bellows’ haunted book is actually written in a ledger), but this is, ultimately, a movie for kids, after all, just as the books were for kids. And just as the books were sometimes inappropriately creepy in ways that kept them burning in the forefront of our young minds (thanks, Stephen Gammell) so too is the movie.

It was artist Trevor Henderson who pointed out on Twitter that the film even puts its PG-13 rating to good use, transforming what could have been visceral but ultimately forgettable demises into “fates that are existentially horrible to think about.” At the same time, these stakes feel higher and more real than many a teen body count movie, thanks again to that looming Vietnam allegory, which reminds us that these kids—all kids—are just destined for the meat grinder, one way or another.

Photo Courtesy of CBS FIlms

So, Scary Stories is creepy and thematically dense—the creatures are good, the scares land solidly—but here’s something I didn’t expect: It’s also surprisingly funny. The theatre I saw it in cracked up with regularity. But it’s not funny in a tongue-in-cheek or dismissive kind of way. There are very few winks and nods to be found here.

I’d compare it instead to something like the recent Spider-Man films, which combine a John Hughes-like earnestness with genre trappings (there superhero films; here scary stories) to create young protagonists who feel authentic, if not necessarily real.

It may be coming out in August, but Scary Stories is an autumnal brew, smelling of burnt leaves and rustling cornfields, empty old houses and small towns with dark secrets. It opens on Halloween night, and would play as an admirable double-feature with Trick ‘r Treat, another seasonal favorite that comes at the anthology format from an unusual angle.

But while Trick ‘r Treat may be the ultimate Halloween night movie; Scary Stories might actually be more suited to the day after. It is, ultimately, a film about putting the past away—even while we can never leave it behind.

In this age when it seems like every “new” property aims to sell us something from the past repackaged in shiny new paper, Scary Stories is the rare beast that can actually put that nostalgia to some incisive use. It’s also creepy as hell and surprisingly funny and poignant. Go see it twice!