Each week, locals Cole Schneider and Matt Greene share their different takes on new movies out in area theaters. For podcasts and more, visit MovietownMovieClub.com.

 

Cole: 'Scary Stories' explores social-political past

I was skeptical of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark." It wasn't just the August release date, but the property. Like many, I'm tired of Hollywood regurgitating past properties and profiting off nostalgia. I feared this would be like "It" or "Stranger Things" — just an excuse to dump a generic story on top of a bygone aesthetic.

Instead of conforming to that kind of lazy emulation, "Scary Stories" confronts it, and as a piece of reflexive nostalgia it goes beyond mere aestheticism. Yes, it directly addresses the lame formal idea of shooting the past through rose-colored lenses, but it also takes a hard look at how we approach our social-political past (and present).

Set in 1968, the milieu of "Scary Stories" looks very similar to today's American suburbs. It's overwhelmingly white and xenophobic, and mired in a futile overseas war. Once the three nerds at the center of the story meet  up with an Hispanic drifter who "ain’t from 'round here" and then the four explore a haunted house and take a book of scary stories, the terms of horror movie engagement are set and the movie is free to become an experimental set-piece machine.

In another movie it might've seemed like its insistence on the power of stories was an excuse to be as meta as "Scary Stories" is, but instead it becomes a background to explore its deeper thematic grounds.

Director André Øvredal is an outsider to America and the right person to tell this story. Some stories hurt and some stories heal; "Scary Stories" explores the horrifying ramifications of the former and eventually nestles itself in as the latter.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

Matt: 'Scary Stories' script loosely tied together

"Scary Stories" is so close to a near-perfect introduction to true terror for younger kids. The kid-centered cast, the episodic format, the meta-nature of horror storytelling. Unfortunately, despite its great conceit (teens find a book that writes its own horror tales that end up coming true), "Scary Stories" is not only too violently dark for younger viewers, it's also just not that great. Existing somewhere between anthology film and single narrative, it settles for being a barely convincing, strung-together collection of inventive (if undeniably spooky) death scenes that would've been served better as a collection of short stories.

Where the film soars is in its individual, smaller monster stories, specifically in the creature creations. Producer Guillermo del Toro is notoriously great with horror visuals, and you see his influence clearly. The hulking scarecrow, the spider infestation, the unspeakably creepy overweight hospital patient; these are all the makings of disgusting and wonderful nightmares. The script tying these parts together is, sadly, much less effective. Slow-paced and drawn-out nothingness is mistaken for actual tension, potential plot devices are clumsily thrown aside, horror cliches abound (how many contorted CGI-bodies do we really need?), and our heroes run the range between one-dimensional and just plain boring.

I will say, however, that the ending helps shed some light on the purpose of the larger story. We wrestle with the futility of fighting fate, and even how we as a culture turn our own victims into monsters, who then create more victims, a message that's especially prescient. I certainly wish the story leading to those moments was less sloppy, but it's still nice to get a horror movie more interested in curious disturbia than cheap jump scares.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars