It should come to no one’s surprise that, in this age of commodified nostalgia, the Hollywood blockbuster machine would go on to scrape the bottom of the cultural barrel in the hopes of finding its next profitable franchise.
The proverbial barrel was almost dry as many other studios had already plumbed the absolute depths of it, spawning a cinematic translation of Stephen King’s It, adaptations of popular 1990s children’s horror novels Goosebumps and sequels to one of the go-to holiday TV reruns Jumanji, which was also originally released in the decade when people would still unironically wear fanny packs as part of their practical everyday outfits.
When producers and directors are not busy resurrecting established intellectual properties for their supposed promise of a safe financial investment, the industry still recycles conventions and aesthetics of pre-Y2K pop culture and turns these compilations of tropes into “new” media franchises. The Duffer Brothers are currently at the top of this trendy game as their vacuous exercise in formal emulation, , is among today’s most-talked about cultural phenomena.
No wonder, then, that when CBS Films and Entertainment One announced they would produce a big-screen adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s controversial collection of children’s horror short stories Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – the cause of a short-lived moral panic among suburban parents in the 1980s – most of us brushed off the project as a logical continuation of Hollywood’s ongoing conquest of our collective nostalgia.
The film adaptation gained significant momentum when respected genre auteur Guillermo Del Toro – known for his cinematic works that indulge in and celebrate the macabre – came on board as a story consultant. Anticipation steadily grew when Norwegian horror genius André Øvredal, whose previous films Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe helped put him on the map, was announced as the director.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, in its film form, turns out to be a more potent concoction of reflexive nostalgia than almost anything else of its ilk. In its boldest moments, the film directly confronts and contorts the current trend of viewing the past through rose-tinted lenses, revealing the oft-forgotten sociopolitical scars that function as a sobering slap in the face of “the good old days”.
The year is 1968 and, in more ways than one, things look eerily similar to our current zeitgeist. There’s the xenophobia, the futile war against foreign forces, and the president that constantly flirts with impeachment. In the small Californian town of Mill Valley, a trio of teenage geeks consisting of Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) joins forces with reclusive out-of-towner Ramon (Michael Garza) to explore a dilapidated mansion that once belonged to the mysterious Bellows clan, the region’s first-generation bourgeoisie.
Fascinated with the history of the house, the group takes home a book containing the titular scary stories written by the enigmatic Sarah Bellows, who died in the basement of her own family’s home following years of exile. Unbeknown to them, the seemingly innocuous book will prove to be their own undoing as it writes down exactly how their lives will end in its blank pages, unleashing all kinds of demonic creatures in the process.
Making the book of scary stories itself a diegetic element in the film is a clever move that lends itself to some genuinely experimental moments. The film’s internal logic dictates that the scary stories millennials have come to know and love in their childhood manifest themselves as real threats to the main protagonists.
An extended sequence in the middle half sees Stella and Ramon narrate one of the book’s best-known stories, “The Big Toe”, to Auggie through a walkie-talkie from afar as the story comes to life in his household. This seamless melding of two disparate mediums – horror fiction and horror cinema – gives the film a rare sense of urgency that effectively unnerves us despite our knowledge of what’s going to unfold in the next several frames, with the protagonists’ reactions to the supernatural occurrences approximating our own experience of reading the actual real-world book. Think Final Destination by way of Death Note.
Øvredal’s direction is constantly propulsive – every cut is deliberate with nary a dull frame. In one swift masterstroke, he manages to effortlessly strike a very delicate balance between haunted house antics and kinetic action comedy. Some of the creature designs, such as the Jangly Man and the Pale Lady, are instantly iconic and evocative of Del Toro’s penchant for visually striking monster anatomies.
On paper, the screenplay’s thematic preoccupation with the transformative power of stories may sound like a trite justification of its own metatextual approach to storytelling. However, in the film, this thematic undercurrent rather poignantly dovetails the tumultuous period in which the story takes place.
Written by Dan and Kevin Hageman, the action is occasionally interspersed with news footage of Richard Nixon’s looming election as the 37th president of the United States. Mill Valley itself is depicted as a political time capsule where store fronts are plastered with campaign posters, on which the ‘x’ in Nixon is replaced with the Nazi swastika. The ongoing, increasingly soul-deadening nightmare that is the Vietnam War looms over every corner of the white-fenced suburbs, threatening to gobble up every beloved child and spit them out in body bags.
“Stories heal, stories hurt,” utters a character in the film. The phrase never rang truer in the late 1960s, an apocalyptic time when the American government fed itself false narratives to sustain its morale and assert its fragile superiority in the world order, with teenage soldiers being casually traded away as expendable assets. However, it was also these fictions that enabled an entire generation of young reformists to rise up and speak truth to power.
Del Toro told Entertainment Weekly in July about the film’s sociopolitical backdrop.
There are no good old days. The past was a necessary nightmare. Remember it that way.
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