Ya know, I just wanted to write a short blurb affirming that this movie is great, encouraging you to see it, etc. Your Intrepid Host is verbose to a fault—but I was willing to hold back my delight back a bit because I thought I would sound repetitive in praising this little gem that far outshines amongst other ‘nostalgia bait’.
But alas, I peeked around, listened to some podcast reviews, and found myself most miffed.
Some of the negative—whiny—feedback has sounded an awful lot like this: “I guess you might like it if you’re a kid.” “I guess kids might like it.”
Do you think.
This PG13 movie with a cast of high school aged protagonists named after a series of children’s books MIGHT be aimed at kids? OMG guys, we have been bamboozled!
There’s nothing wrong with liking a movie, disliking a movie, having mixed feels about a movie. But I do raise quite the eyebrow at this idea that just because the books the movie was based on are from 30 years ago, somehow the movie should’ve been about pleasing us rather than the kids stumbling upon those books in their local libraries today.
So I’m going to plunge head first into some of the stuff I loved about this movie. It’s chock full of SPOILERS so read at your own risk.
I was pleasantly surprised by how the film stayed solid throughout in terms of tension, plot, and payoff. Our dream-team behind the film, Guillermo del Toro and André Øvredal, are known for their excellent visuals in creepy movies. However, their films’ plots either hit it perfectly or really miss the pay off.*
The move isn’t an anthology ala Creep Show or Cat’s Eye, but is its own independent plot that pays homage to the original Alvin Schwartz folktales and Stephen Gammell’s illustrations.
*YEP. YEP I SAID IT.
To sum up: our group of teens go into an abandoned, supposedly haunted house on Halloween night. They find a book that belonged to local legend Sarah Bellows. Sarah Bellows (just like every other inventive badass woman before her) was abused, abandoned, accused of killing kids, and probably murdered. Sarah Bellows used to tell scary stories to local children. Protagonist Stella, clearly finding a kindred spirit in Sarah Bellows, takes the book Sarah wrote her stories in. The stories start to come to life. Creepily and violently.
As a solid touch, the usual cliched solutions don’t do the trick here. The book can’t be given back or destroyed. It keeps coming back. As do its terrors.
I’ll come clean. This does result in a truly stinker of a line “You don’t read the book. THE BOOK READS YOU.” But stick with me….
The movie takes place in a small town on Halloween in the early 70s. I really liked this choice of setting. It leans heavy into the nostalgia and Halloweenie feels that brought many of us to see the movie in the first place. There’s old cars, drive-in movies showing vintage horror movies, homemade costumes, nurses in those creepy and demeaning white cap uniforms, etc.
The choice of time along with some other background elements brings a sense of “I am just a kid but the world is too heavy” feels that we can all identify with—and yes, cliché here: especially these days. It’s not a coincidence that the movie takes place in October-November of 1972—aka when Nixon was reelected. The (really really ridiculously good-looking) protagonist Ramon is subjected to racist jeers. Vietnam is ongoing, and worse: we see some of the local boys happily signing up to ‘shoot some commies’.
At the same time, our kids are Going Through Shit. Ramon lives transiently and his brother died in Vietnam. Stella (our main Weird Girl whom I love) had her mom leave a few years ago, and her dad has collapsed into himself. Friend Augie has a mom with a new boyfriend and is often left alone for weekends. And then there’s buddy Chuck who….is cursed with an older sister and never ever being as funny as the script insists he is.
I appreciate this, because it helps the framing of ‘this is a kid’s movie, but we’re going to meet you at your level rather than talk down to you’. Which is exactly how the movie treats its horror elements. All things considered, the movie makes superb compromises between “we want to grow a garden of nightmares but without killing any kids.”*
*However, ¾ of the way through, a sheriff’s deputy is murdered which is NEVER ADDRESSED. A monster straight up snaps his neck, his body drops like a sack of potatoes, and no one later is like “oh shit, the missing kids were bad but now we’ve got some Dateline shit going on here.”
There have been complaints that the movie didn’t go with Michael Myers’ hack and slash type deaths. But I found the individual not-quite-demises of the victims very inventive workarounds.
I gleefully recount my favorites to you now!
The town bully, Tommy, is first to go (of course). He is hunted down in the cornfield behind his house by our first cameo, Harold.
Tommy comes home drunk after a day of signing up to go to Vietnam and torturing younger peers, just like the budding psychopath he is.
His mom is mad over some quaint farm problems. Tommy didn’t take some eggs over to the neighbors. So very inebriated Tommy is sent to deliver the eggs, across a cornfield at midnight on Halloween. Such as it was in the olden days, when kids befell horrible, completely avoidable tragedies. At least it kept life interesting.
Family scarecrow, Harold, was pretty fucked up looking to begin with, but Sarah Bellows’ book brings him to life. With a stiff, shuffling gait, Harold stalks Tommy through the cornfield (GET IT).
As I watched this scene, I was enjoying the buildup but was concerned. Would there be payoff? Unlike apparently everyone else, I knew this was a kid’s movie. I knew I wasn’t going to get the original story’s ending where Harold stretches out his victim’s flayed skin to dry in the sun.* Would this be a bait and switch? Would Harold do a jumpscare and nothing more?
Oh no. Harold is sick of getting shit on by this punk. In fact, Harold came to play.
Town bully Tommy gets SKEWERED THROUGH THE GUTS with a pitchfork.
Thank god I saw this in a dark theater. If anyone had seen the utter glee on my face when that kid got run through, I suspect I would’ve been reported to someone.
I was delighted because it meant the movie didn’t intend to pull punches anymore than the bare minimum for that PG13 rating.
Tommy doesn’t get taken out in a slasher movie fashion. Instead, the pitchfork infects him, slowly turning him into a scarecrow. The film draws this out for a few minutes, treating us to full blown body horror. Tommy tries to run away, but he’s choking up straw, sputtering and unable to scream as more and more straw consumes him from the inside out.
*You know! For kids!
The next morning, all anyone knows is Tommy is missing. Our heroes stumble upon the eerie inanimate scarecrow that he’s become. That’s where what’s left of Tommy stays, for the whole movie. His parents never find out what happened to him. And because this isn’t an episode on Investigation Discovery, no one logically says “well obviously the parents got sick of his shit and murdered him”. Some characters even speculate he went off to his volunteer term in ‘Nam early, which if true would be even creepier than his parents killing him.
Next up is friend Augie. Augie has the misfortunate of getting matched to one of the many many many Scary Stories having to do with eating a corpse. Living out many a latchkey kid’s evening of scavenging for food, Augie finds a stew sitting in the fridge. Most disturbingly, he just starts eating straight from the pot without heating the stew up. Clearly, Augie has some issues.
What we know, and what his friends try to warn him about, is that of course: a corpse’s toe is in that stew and he is fated to take a big ol’ slurp of worm chow.*
Again, this is a great scene where the movie just lets the inevitable draw out through two sequences.
First, you know that rotting toe is going in this kid’s mouth. And you’re just gonna have to sit there and squirm until it finally happens. We’ve all had that moment where something winds up in your mouth while eating that is not allowed in your mouth ever. All of you that have nightmares about a finger winding up in your fastfood burger? This is for you.
Once Augie inevitably takes that awful bite of offal, the next sequence of drawn out dread kicks off. Because as per tradition in such tales, the corpse wants that toe back.
*Where was the afterschool special about this danger?
Augie is hunted through his house by the horrid wraith that’s one toe short. He eventually winds up hiding under his bed. But…. the corpse is under the bed with him. Augie is dragged into some hellscape by the corpse, never to be seen again.
Buddy Chuck’s older sister falls next. She is subjected to a nightmare I’ve actually dreamt before: thousands of tiny spiders popping out of your body. She doesn’t get supernaturally disappeared, but does get whisked off to a mental asylum after understandably losing her shit from the experience.
The most inventive scene in the film is the one in which Chuck is subjected to The Red Room. The Red Room is adapted from the original Scary Story ‘The Dream’. The scene takes place in a hospital, where the red of the Red Room is implemented through emergency lights. I found that really smart, and a great way to add atmosphere to a scene that really needed it. And we need that atmosphere because this story’s particular antagonist needs a little extra help to appear frightening.
The Pale Lady looks almost like a living muppet. And hey, a living muppet sounds horrifying. Credit where credit is due: on the big screen, I found her to look very real. It’s difficult to make a creature like this that is less immediately supernatural, but still has to look otherworldly enough to creep you out. She does not have an immediately threatening presence—she has a mellow, almost lukewarm friendly expression.
The Pale Lady meanders closer and closer to Chuck, who sees her every time he turns down a new hallway to try to escape.
Finally, he’s cornered. Face to face with the creature.
And I’m thinking “Uh…well okay, now what? She’s just a big pale lady. What could she possibly–”
The film suddenly cut to a full length shot.
Chuck was now HALF ABSORBED INTO the Pale Lady. His head had vanished into her, his torso slowly following. No squirming or flailing. The kid was suddenly just half—and then fully—swallowed whole.
And will this quietly spawn many a Vore fetishist in our young audience? Most definitely, but at least they have the privilege of getting started with excellent Guillermo del Toro special effects.
There’s more to enjoy about the film, there’s a whole other monster I haven’t even touched on yet, etc. But I’ve largely touched on the stuff that really sold me on the film.
One more thing: aside from all the ooky spooky stuff, the standout element was our main character, Stella. Stella is the weird young girl I wish I’d been together enough to embrace at that age. Of course, I’m always happy to see a girl getting to lead a movie for kids. But actress Zoe Colletti brings it. When she cries and gathers bravery through those tears, you believe her. Her delivery complements the creatures and horror to make the whole film work as a whole.
The movie is not perfect. There were things I distinctly did not care for. But I’m very glad this movie exists. This movie assured me that the tradition still holds of Halloweenie movies that treat kids with respect, like Hocus Pocus and The Halloween Tree. As an adult, you can absolutely enjoy and appreciate this movie—but you have to keep in mind that it isn’t necessarily for you anymore than Trick or Treating is.