Film Reviews

Scary Stories (2019) Documentary Review

Focusing on the eerie and beloved children’s books, Scary Stories explores the author, the artist, their influence on fans, and the controversy caused by them.

It feels silly to say that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark maintained a special place in my heart throughout the years simply because it seems so obvious. These books- three slim paperbacks with disturbing illustrations-were the baddies of the elementary school library and everybody wanted to read them. They were yet another delectable part of the 90s surge of accessible horror, Goosebumps at the forefront. SSTD was the forbidden fruit we got away with eating and that notoriety has continued into 2019. With the Guillermo del Toro film premiering this August, a documentary about Alvin Schwartz’ greatest literary achievement was perfectly timed- but was it perfectly executed?

The documentary gathered valuable information from a variety of sources about both Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell, the artist responsible for those ghoulish pictures. It’s minimal but very much appreciated and gave a great insight onto why they wrote and drew what they did. There’s also insight given by other children’s horror authors of the time, albeit brief soundbites and interviews. A few fans were featured as well, mainly those directly influenced (sculptors, artists, tattoo enthusiasts).

Sadly, the formatting of the documentary was very choppy and any sort of narrative was lost in the editing. The controversy of the banned status of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark seemed to be the focal point (and a forced one at that). So many minutes were used on a former teacher who was a “lead” protester on the books and how she still feels the books are inappropriate. Sure, her point of view is valid and the presentation of opposition is necessary but filming a meeting between her and the author’s son over 20 years later? Not great entertainment.

I was also disappointed with the amount of backstory on the stories themselves and the folklore Schwartz spent years researching. There’s some but surely something more substantial could have been said. With over 40 interviews, only a handful were not personal stories/influences/inspirations of speakers who had no connection with the author himself. A lot of the doc felt like filler with components like this and the repetitive showing of the same clips and images. It gave me the impression that the creators didn’t have quite enough to justify a history of the books and had to incorporate a lot of fan opinions.

Overall, Scary Stories aims to show audiences how important these books remain to be in 2019. In that respect, it was successful. However, as a documentary, it fell flat in terms of delivering entertainment and groundbreaking details.

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