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Scary Stories’ ending couldn’t deliver the ultimate horror

To quote Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, ‘Sometimes, dead is better’

Ruth (Ganzhorn) hesitates to touch an oversized zit on her cheek, from which a black hair — or is it an insect’s leg? — protrudes.
Natalie Ganzhorn in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

At a preview of footage from the film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, producer Guillermo del Toro said, “In my movies, kids do die.” It’s a bold statement to make about a film geared towards younger audiences, though perhaps a little less unexpected from a horror movie.

The statement, however, is also at the root of one of the biggest disappointments in André Øvredal’s spin on Alvin Schwartz’s anthology. The film, which imagines the creatures populating the stories as the creations of a ghost seeking revenge for past misdeeds, doesn’t shy away from peril, but there’s a fundamental weakness to the way it tries to wrap it all up.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follow.]

A dilapidated scarecrow, with a crow resting on its head.

As the film progresses, three teenagers are declared missing and presumed dead after run-ins with monsters. Tommy (Austin Abrams) is turned into a scarecrow after tormenting the one in his family’s field. Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is dragged into the darkness underneath his bed by a monster missing its toe. Chuck (Austin Zajur) is physically pressed into the body of the pale lady, consumed by the mass of flesh. They’re gone for good, it seems. There’s no evidence of a reversal mechanic; the damage that’s been done is permanent.

Or at least, that’s how it feels until the film’s very last scene, which, in a single moment, undermines the weight that perma-death affords the film by setting up for a sequel. After breaking the curse that threatened to kill them all, Stella (Zoe Colletti) is seen in a car with her father (Dean Norris), as well as Chuck’s older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), who, after having had spiders birth themselves from a particularly bad zit on her cheek, has largely recovered. As Stella tells it, there must be a way to get the lost kids back, and she’s determined to figure it out.

Broadly speaking, that hopeful note sort of fits with the film’s overall message of the harm in history repeating itself and the need to tell the truth and break out of such cycles. Yet it’s a bit of a letdown in terms of the story’s stakes. Scary Stories isn’t crying for a sequel (though it would be great to see some of Stephen Gammell’s other illustrations brought to life), and it also feels like a cop-out. Is there much of a point in the spooks we’ve just seen if they’re all reversible? And if the monsters are a now-gone ghost’s invention, do the lessons learn also have to be reversed in order to bring more of them to life?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t need (and doesn’t call for) gory or provocative extremes, but it holds the audience’s hand instead. There’s so much that the film is trying to address — setting the story around the Nixon election and the Vietnam War as well as incorporating racial tensions in America — that the coddling, “they’re all fine, actually” ending comes across as a sharp reversal. It’d be as if Pan’s Labyrinth, to reference one of del Toro’s other works which similarly interweaves storytelling and the effects of adult’s actions upon children against the backdrop of war, ended with its heroine returning to life.

Schwartz’s original short stories conjured a sense of the void. By the end, there was no sense of light at the end of the tunnel — these stories were to be told in, and took place in, the dark. The film does the equivalent of turning the lights on at the end; it dispels the very monsters it’s conjured up.

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