Though it labors to spin an elaborate plot out of the Vietnam War, immigrant panic, and a proto–Stranger Things crew of 1960s misfits, the new movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark mainly exists for a half-dozen prize bits of fan service that adapt Alvin Schwartz’s urban legend–inspired tales. Favorites like “The Red Spot” and “Harold” lovingly make their way into the movie, and even when they bear only a passing resemblance to the original stories (not to mention Stephen Gammell’s infamous illustrations), they tap into a nostalgia well that the movie’s trendy period setting never quite locates.
Those moments that hew closer to the source material, which are imagined in the movie as vengeance by a ghost with an evil storybook, are surprisingly intense and violent, despite the movie’s PG-13 rating, a subject of prerelease speculation from fans. Pitchforks spear teenage racists, severed digits flavor broth, and bodies rupture apart and put each other back together again: Everything is as it should be.
Well, almost. When the movie does arrive at “The Red Spot,” probably the most famous story from Schwartz’s volume, all appears in order at first: A teen girl notices a red spot on her face that seems to be growing. After much opportunity for viewers to squirm, she proceeds to a bathroom mirror (relocated from a bathtub in Schwartz’s telling) and sees the spot begin to move, until it sprouts a leg and eventually bursts open to reveal a fount of digital spiders. The moment is suitably disgusting—until the moment of the big reveal, when it suddenly cuts to black and stays that way as the girl’s friends rush into the bathroom. The scene feels bizarrely truncated, as if the filmmakers (or MPAA board members) finally got squeamish.
I asked Scary Stories director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) last week if the movie had to be reedited. He said no—at least not that scene. “We tried to make a scene seem suspenseful and freaky and go as far as we could with the little gore that we have, or the ickiness,” he said. “No, it wasn’t edited. I mean, not for any rating. We haven’t scaled back anything for the rating. We maximized everything we wanted, and then we showed it to the MPAA and they approved it,” he said. The sequence was designed to straddle the varying tolerance levels of different generations of viewers: “That’s the ideal version of the movie—if the people who grew up with these books back in the ’80s take their now-teenage kids to see it, what can be better than having all the generations bond over their love for horror?”
Øvredal did say there was one scene that was significantly cut, but it dealt with Harold, the titular scarecrow who was another Schwartz campfire favorite. The sequence, heavily featured in the movie’s trailers, was originally more graphic: “It wasn’t directly the ending of the story in the book, but it related to the fact that the character in the story gets [his] skin torn off.” (In the short story, Harold comes to life and skins two nasty farmers, leaving them to cook in the sun; in the film, he comes after a racist bully, with slightly less unsettling results.)
If anyone wants to quibble with Øvredal’s cuts—like, say, a reporter calling him right before his movie had its first public screenings last week—he isn’t much interested. “Everybody I talked to who has a relationship to these books, they remember going to the Scholastic school fair and fighting over the books in the library when they were kids and discovering and reading them under the sheets in the bed,” he said. “It just would be so unfair to the books if we made an ugly, ugly horror movie. That can sometimes be amazing, and I love that myself, but that was never the meaning of this movie.”
Besides, even future gorehounds have to start somewhere. “It’s supposed to be almost like a gateway movie for young adults,” he said. “They should have their first horror experience with this movie. That’s our dream scenario.”