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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Review: The spirit of Sarah Bellows, and the trauma of teenage fellows

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Review: The spirit of Sarah Bellows, and the trauma of teenage fellows

Though the voice-over insists that stories hurt and stories heal, and that if they are repeated very often, they become true, any amount of repetition will not succeed in making Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark seem anything like real. Hurt, it does, heal, I wonder! It’s a horror story, pure and simple, or, rather, neither very pure nor very simple. A 70 year-old mansion has its secrets and is reportedly haunted, and all those who went to explore the derelict building never came back. So, will a bunch of teenagers survive? Yes, there is more, but very little of it is convincing or innovative.

Back in 1968, Richard Nixon is fighting two other candidates for the office of the President of the United States of America, and hordes of US citizens are protesting against the war in Vietnam, from where some of the sons of America are being brought back in body bags. Seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small Mid-Western town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, where, for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time--stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers, who make the mistake of venturing into Sarah’s home on Halloween.

The teens are led by local misfit Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), raised by a single parent ever since her mother went away, who is taking a break from penning creepy tales to go trick-or-treating with her few friends, the mysterious loner, Auggie Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush), trouble-seeker Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur), and new to the area, Latin-American Ramón (Michael Garza), who was watching a movie at a Drive-In theatre and got sucked into the events quite by chance. Their night of fun turns foul when they play a poopy (literally) prank on bête noire Tommy (Austin Abrams)  Milner, who is speeding away in his car. Fearing serious repercussions, the teens flee to the abandoned Bellows mansion, where the ostracised heiress, Sarah, whispered stories through a crack in its wall, to children, who later died from a so-called curse.

Sarah’s horrors have an unpleasant tendency to come to life in present day 1968, and these all-too-real tales begin to shadow the lives of the teens, and even threaten to end them. Death stalks them, one by one, in ghastly, grisly, hideous forms that include a scarecrow, a Jangly Man, the Toe Monster and the egg-faced, penguin-like Pale Fat Lady. The book is in Stella’s possession, and reading it gives her clues about who is going to be attacked next. In an incredible development, new stories start writing themselves on blank pages, and the writing does not stop even though Stella, whose favourite movie is Night of the Living Dead, keeps tearing the pages. Soon, a couple of persons are going to disappear, presumed dead, and a third will barely escape death. Sarah Bellows is avenging herself, but in the wrong century, and through innocent victims.

CBS Films acquired the rights to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz's children's horror book series, in 2013. The script was written by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Later, John August was hired to do the writing.  In 2016, Guillermo del Toro stepped-in to develop the project, with there being talk of him directing as well. That same year, CBS signed the screen-writing brothers duo Daniel and Kevin Hageman to polish the drafts. Last year, Guillermo Del Toro was announced as co-writer of the film, with André Øvredal directing. August gets no credit.

The books that constitute the Scary Stories trilogy are Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991). Apparently, the film restricts itself to the first title. The three books each feature numerous short stories in the horror genre. Author Schwartz, who died in 1991, drew heavily from folklore and urban legends as the topic of his stories, researching extensively and spending more than a year on writing each book. He named Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Bennett Cerf and Jan Harold Brunvand as the influences. The first volume was published in 1981 and contains 29 stories, including “The Haunted House”, "The Big Toe", "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!", "The Wendigo" and “The Red Spot”, which are identifiable in the movie with direct references.

Pooling the writing talents of Schwartz, Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton, John August, Guillermo del Toro, and Dan and Kevin Hageman must have meant many things, like additions, deletions and changes, but converting several of the short stories as events that occur in just one scary tale and in a continuous time-frame, is by far the most revolutionary part of cinematic treatment. Maybe it has its virtues, but I found it confusing and far from convincing. Why would a ghost want to kill teenaged children who wandered into its lair out of mere curiosity, and took away its scary stories’ book to read? And again, why would it conjure up macabre, sub-human beings to appear out of nowhere and do its blood and gore bidding? Why not get on to the job yourself, the one with the 1898 costume and opaque eyes, Ms. Scary Sarah?

Sarah’s motivation is not clearly established. There is a back story about the really rich Bellows family, owners of paper mills, locking her in the basement, torturing her, accusing her of poisoning children and using medical practitioners and shock treatment to extract a false confession. She agrees to tell them what they want to hear, and then, apparently, hangs herself, all of twenty years old. The rest is muddled, or lost on the way from the screen to the eyes and ears.

André Øvredal (Norwegian; Trollhunter, Polaroid, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) uses all the tricks of the trade to generate scares: doors latching/unlatching with loud thuds, the camera closing in on the back of a character who then turns around to see something startling, exits getting barred as someone tries to escape impending death at the hands of a monster, a dog getting prophetic sensations of ominous arrival, characters trying to warn a friend on phone about what would happen if he ate the broth he is in the process of downing, and failing to get to him in a race against time, a ghost sitting with her back to the subjective camera and turning around to show frighteningly opaque eyes, colonies of maggots coming out of human flesh, alive or dead, and more.

The writers and the director make pointed statements about racism, and the ‘usual suspects’, using Ramón as the peg to hang it on. He is first questioned by a policeman, who, sensing that he is not from the town, asks him who he is what he is doing here, and Ramón replies, “Following the harvest”, whereas he is actually dodging the draft, after the death of his elder brother in Vietnam. Later, a fellow teenager asks him for his switch-blade, and he replies that he ever told any of them that he had a switch-blade. Though the point is made, it is hardly needed in the milieu of the film. Ditto Nixon’s election.

Zoe Colletti (Annie, Wildlife), as the bespectacled Stella, has a fatalistic air about her, and an urgency that is inexplicable, till the book happens. Michael Garza looks so Indian (not the Red kind) and so vulnerable. Gabriel Rush is one character you do not want dead. Austin Abrams (The Walking Dead) is one character you won’t mind being bumped off, considering he uses the Scarecrow as a baseball bat practice object. Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) as Police Deputy Roy wears his racist feelings on his sleeve, and pays for it. Natalie Ganzhorn as Ruth Steinberg, the sex kitten who is about to be seduced by Tommy, fits the bill. Austin Zajur plays her brother, Chuck, who is cut-up with Tommy for dating his sister and wants to teach him a lesson.

The Evil Entities are played by Javier Botet--The Toe Monster, Troy James--Jangly Man, Mark Steger--Harold the Scarecrow and the Pale Lady (double role?). Andrew Jackson is the voice of the Jangly Man.

Kathleen Pollard as Sarah Bellows, Will Carr as Dr. Ephraim Bellows, Elias Edraki as the voice of the ghost of Dr. Ephraim Bellows, Jane Moffat as Delanie Bellows, Amanda Smith as Gertrude Bellows and Brandon Knox as Harold Bellows, in bit roles, round off the cast.

Music by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich emerges as a major plus for the film. Competent cinematography by Roman Osin and optimum editing (a must for the genre) by Patrick Larsgaard are other departments that chip in. If the film has a significant contribution from Guillermo del Toro, then it must be said that it pales in comparison with del Toro's widely acclaimed The Shape of Water (2017), which he directed, besides co-writing it. It was dark, like Scary Stories, but had an adult romance at its core.

Released yesterday in the United States and India, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has a running time of 108 minutes. It might be scary for the 16-18 age group, but try as I might, I could not go back to 1968, when I was 16, and feel the goose-bumps. So, it did not work for me, though it had its moments.

Lastly, it is only at the very end of the film that Sarah Bellows (b should be lower case here, since bellows is used as verb, not a proper noun). Better late than never!

Rating: **



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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