For children of the ’80s and ’90s, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a rite of passage and a treasured part of growing up. We hid these creepy books under bed sheets, reading them by flashlight. We shared them at slumber parties, frightening our friends. We swapped the trilogy of titles back and forth, daring each other to look back at the haunting illustrations that stared us down. But for our parents, Alvin Schwartz’s collection of folklore with Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations was a point of controversy. Some parents saw these books as unwelcomed nightmares and wanted them banned, while others tenaciously defended them and denounced such censorship. Now, the documentary Scary Stories aims to explore that era’s hysteria and the ultimate impact of these books as well as the men behind their making. Sadly, director Cody Meirick is frightfully ill-equipped for this endeavor.
Scary Stories is as plotted as a puddle. Interviews with excited fans spouting praise but little introspection are sloppily slapped among those with folklore historians, scholars, and Schwartz’s family, as well as a still riled PTA president who once demanded the books be banned. Rather than creating an arc by speaking about the process of the books’ creation, then charting their success and eventual controversy, Meirick lays out quick facts like sales numbers in a hasty title sequence that seems better suited to a trailer. Then, he attempts to create arcs by crudely splitting up two stories from the backlash era. One follows the former PTA president who tried to have the book pulled from her grade school’s library; the other follows a librarian who refused the superintendant’s request to pull the book from hers. But there’s not much to either tale. Still in between “acts,” the director haphazardly wedges in a testimonial from a young mom who has a large Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tattoo or Schwartz’s widow chuckling over the banning uproar. Then it’s back to the PTA pres or the librarian for another chapter that feels hardly worth the effort. And that describes the film as a whole. Devoid of insight from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s creators, this doc is overstuffed with bland B-roll, earnest but too often vapid interviews, and shallow explorations.
Schwartz died in 1992, and Gammell is deeply private. With no one who has no direct access to their thoughts, Meirick instead has subjects read aloud from a rare Gammell print-interview and a book written about Schwartz. Mind you, neither reading is done by a performer. Rather, interview subjects read on-camera the passages, which hurt from the half-hearted efforts. Mostly, the film leans on Schwartz’s surviving family members to share his story. This gets questionable when his son admits they were semi-estranged for the final decade of his father’s life, which is when the books came out.
At Scary Stories’ center, this all leaves a gnawing hole, almost like something out of a Gammell illustration. To fill it, Meirick offers a slew of cheap tricks. An extended portion of the third act wanders around an art homage show called “Scary Stories to Tell in the Art.” In a trumped-up showdown between the PTA president and Schwartz’s son, the barely foes rehash a battle twenty years behind them. (Even the film seems to grow tired of this, drowning out their exchange with a droning organ score.) There’s amateurish black-and-white animation that attempts to honor Gammell’s style, but instead misses the mark so broadly it’s embarrassing. One such sequence leaps from a video-recorded interview with R.L. Stine (pictured below), to a slew of interviews with other children’s book authors all conducted over the phone, then played over a cartoon librarian perusing their covers. The audio for these interviews is so muddled that subtitles prove shockingly essential, considering these weren’t found audio but always intended to be in a film! And there’s a woeful sequence where a young woman retells Schwartz’s stories, poorly.
This recurring bit succinctly sums up the problems with Scary Stories. It’s set perfunctorily in a bedroom, where the woman sits on the floor before two underwhelmed little girls. Rather than being moodily lit or draped in shadows, an overhead light shines carelessly, overexposing the storyteller’s forehead and losing her eyes and their expression to the muddy shadows. There’s no mood stirred by this setup. As much thought has been put into the set design of the room as there is the lighting: a bed, a spattering of trinkets and toys, a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark on a chest. But worst of all is her performance, which offers nothing remotely spooky. The actress delivers these stories as if she’s telling a hokey joke that needs a rimshot to sell the punchline. Then she offers ad-libs—clunky and unwelcomed—to Schwartz’s text. It’s actually painful to hear “The Red Spot” and “Harold” told this way. And at one point, her audio actually goes out of sync!
This leads to the only section of Scary Stories that felt ripe with potential. Once the stories were set up (however poorly), Meirick turns to historians, psychoanalysts, and scholars to interpret why these stories scare us. What is the greater fear that twitches under the surface of “The Red Spot?” This was fascinating because it not only speaks to why these stories were so effective but more broadly why scary stories evolve through folklore and films. They are always about more than the monster. And here is the only section where Scary Stories begins to dig into its subject matter in a satisfying way. But it is brief. After all, we have a long-retired PTA president to get back to.
With Guillermo del Toro’s much-anticipated adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark coming to theaters this summer, I had hoped Meirick’s doc would give some context that might enrich my appreciation of Schwartz and Gammell’s horrific and wondrous collaborations. Unfortunately, Scary Stories gives you little more than a Wikipedia entry might, and with only a dash more insight. Littered with garbled audio, facile arguments, and astoundingly poor production values, the film feels cheap, lazy, and opportunistic, relying on people’s love of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to lure viewers in, but not respecting that love enough to give us something to sink our teeth into. Instead, Meirick offers animation that is such a poor imitation of Gammell’s style that it feels like an insult. Then—after numerous interviewees praise Schwartz’s writing—he allows an actress to play it loose with his words. It’s nearly sacrilegious. In the end, Scary Stories gives lip service and cut corners to a subject that deserved far better.
Scary Stories hits select theaters April 26 with a VOD release to follow May 7.