Does Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark capitalize on the disturbing imagery and quirky writing of the book series from which it's named, or does the attempt to build a cohesive plot around an anthology-friendly concept dilute the scares?
Anthology films have long been treated as an underground subgenre, of sorts. Though the concept in its infancy covered a wide spectrum of cinematic categories, it is now most often used within the horror and sci-fi veins since the success of Tales from the Crypt in 1972. Most turn-of-the-century iterations of anthologies rarely, if ever, get a theatrical release, most often relegated to a DVD or online streaming date. And while nationwide box office success tends to elude them, we are left to wonder what makes the anthology concept allergic to wider theatrical runs.
The now-traditional anthology model follows the structure of having a "top-level" narrative that overarches the subsequent tales, interweaving the segmented plot into its individual stories. Most anthologies range from four to six stories, but some have gone as high as 26 (of course, this was a horror anthology that went through each letter of the alphabet titled, The ABCs of Death).
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series is a collection of short horror stories for "kids," boasting unsettling imagery and coarse writing. It seemed perfect for the anthology format. But instead, the writers and/or producers chose to build a more dedicated plot around the tales, opting to focus on a downtrodden teen and her friends.
The end result was underwhelming ...
The advantage of the "top-level" format, particularly in the horror realm of anthologies, is that the overarching story essentially becomes a means to an end, quickly threading each plot into the next. It works as a fuel for each part of the horror engine, allowing plot points and scares to come in quick succession. By applying a thicker plot, the individual stories—and scares—are weakened by unnecessary exposition.
A film titled Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark sounds like it is setting out to, dare I say it, scare its audience. The somewhat unconventional format of the anthology (though it’s been around since the early days of film) felt like the perfect way to achieve those scares. Instead, the studio understandably avoided the less-theatrically-successful anthology concept and went the safer route. And that safer choice shows in the finished product. While some of the dark entities manage to instill fear into the audience at times, the moments are few and far between, scrunched inside subplots that inevitably waste the talents of actors like Dean Norris (Breaking Bad).
The methodical pace and paint-by-numbers approach of this story follows the predictable model of mainstream horror and lets you know exactly when things are coming and when they are not. It is this structure that prevents any true sense of dread or tension to develop, as the lulls create deeper valleys than the scares do peaks. The film unavoidably leads to more yawns than gasps and we are left wanting, despite some entertaining visuals in spurts.
Even if it would have led to merely a streaming release, perhaps the anthology approach would have produced a healthier horror flick in the end. Instead, we got another dime-a-dozen piece that can fit comfortably on another page in the adult coloring book of mainstream horror movies.
Have you seen Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark yet? If so, what did you think? Sound off in the comments below.