Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Guest Post: T.S. Dann Reviews SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK Movie

Greetings, ladies and jerks.

Apparently, the Matthew Quinn values my opinion enough to ask my thoughts after a recent trip to the moving pictures. The picture show in question is the recently released film Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. 

Why should you care what the hell I have to say about this movie? Well, let’s just say as an almost lifelong fan of the books and current author and artist, they are something I have held very near and dear for several decades. They are ingrained into the psyche of myself and many others of my generation (mid 30s now) and endure to this day for new readers. What’s more, is during the almost thirty years (as of this writing) of these books’ existence, they have survived a Satanic Panic, book bans, and other overzealous idiocy.

With that out of the way, I originally heard there was going to be a movie based on the books in early 2019. I was not optimistic. Another piece of modern Hollywood schlock that would probably be some goofy crapfest with a few haphazard nods to the books here and there. In fact, I wondered how a Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark movie could work outside an anthology of very short pieces. That being said…the part of me infused with an ever-morbid curiosity said, “If I don’t have to pay for it.”

Well, through a series of happy accidents, my girlfriend and I ended up with passes to a sneak preview on August 7 (general release was August 9). Ever the cynic, I went in with very low expectations. Well I gotta say…my pessimistic ass was not only kicked out of the olde tyme hearse, I bounced off the gravelly old road and landed smiling like that big pipe-smokin’ head on the cover of the first volume. I fucking love that guy.

The movie begins on Halloween of 1968 in a rural American town. The tale of three townie kids and an outsider is woven amidst a backdrop of the doomed anxiety of the era. Televisions broadcast about the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and other political angst. One of the local jock bullies walks out of a military recruiting center jazzed about going to shoot commies. The three kids navigate adolescent tension with all this as the backdrop. Early in the movie, they end up in a rather spirited conflict with said jock bully and his crew. The rubes chase them to the drive in theater where Night of The Living Dead is playing and they hide in the car of a passing outsider. From there, they convince the outsider to go see a local haunted house. Well, you know that can never go wrong in a horror movie.

Upon entering the house, we learn the sad tale of Sarah Bellows and her high falutin’ family. Apparently poor old Sarah was not quite “normal” and was locked in the basement where she eventually died. Leading up to her death, she would tell stories to kids who would come try to talk to her through the walls. Then weird things started happening…and the whole family disappeared, leaving their Gothic mansion abandoned. The legend goes that if you enter the house and tell Sarah you want to hear a story, she will tell you one. Or…you can find her personally written book of stories in the basement and get locked in there by the local drunken jocks. The problem is Sarah is still writing in that book of stories…despite having died in 1899.

From there, the movie incorporates five stories from the original books into the plot: "Harold," "The Big Toe," "The Red Spot," "The Dream," and ultimately a composite of “Me-Tie-Doughty-Walker”, “What Do You Come For?”, and "Aaron Kelly’s Bones." While not exact adaptations, they are quite faithful to the feel of their literary counterparts. In fact, in the final segment, there is a part where a head and dismembered body fall down a chimney…and it looked exactly the way I pictured it back in the day when I first read “What Do You Come For?” and “Me-Tie-Doughty-Walker”.

The plot and action are actually quite morbid and macabre. The haunting creatures manifested by Sarah’s tales are not only scary, but lethal. This one does not play it safe. They kill high school kids and townsfolk alike per Sarah’s tales, imbuing the film with a sense of foreboding danger. While not particularly blood-drenched, the movie does not shy away from gore either. What is there is used to good effect. There is also a fair deal of profanity and the movie does not shy away from heavy subjects such as racism, widespread anxiety during war, strained family relations, underage alcoholism, and other themes not commonly explored in PG-13 horror.

I really don’t want to blather on too much about the stories for the sake of not spoiling anything. What I will say is as an avid reader of the books and someone who has gone on to own many other books illustrated by Stephen Gammell, is that the effects and atmosphere in the movie do justice to the source material. Elements of some stories are combined, I.E. the hot dead chick illustrated in "The Haunted House" appears as the antagonistic spirit in the movie’s adaptation of "The Big Toe." She’s not a graphite portrait, but the effects used create a strong representation of the original.

If you are a fan of good horror in general or an original fan of Alvin Schwartz’s retold folklore, or even just Stephen Gammell’s immortal illustrations, you will be pleased with the film adaptation of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. I expected the worst and found my old hollow heart slightly filled by this love letter to the tales and illustrations that I fell in love with all those years ago.

-T.S. Dann is a former police detective and forensic investigator from DeKalb County, Georgia. He is currently an author and artist who is working on his second book in the brutally dark Nightmarescape series. He has shared tables with Matthew Quinn at several Atlanta area events, mainly because he likes annoying him between customers. 

You can check out his artwork and books on Amazon, Instagram, and Etsy.

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