Friends always mean well.
"LOUISE. There's going to be a "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" movie! And GUILLERMO DEL TORO is making it!"
"Yeah..." I say, trying to sound excited. "I heard that..."
"I thought you'd be excited?"
Ugh. I want to be. Really I do. Not just because it's "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark", but also because I hate being THAT person who immediately starts thinking of all the ways that Hollywood will ruin my favorite childhood nightmares, thus squelching my well-meaning friend's enthusiasm.
But I yam what I yam.
Like many of you, I feel very close to "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark", even protective. The books have been banned, the artwork has been replaced and neutered, but still the SSTD books refuse to go away. Like a dead man looking for his toe.
What I love about the books is that they lure you to the edge of fear. Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell give us the fertile soil of dread in which our nightmares can grow. But what sprouts from Schwartz's telling and Gammell's drawings is all our own. They give us a glimpse of the frightening world from whence our nightmares came, but it is our imaginations — the scariest storytellers of them all — that keep us up at night.
It's a masterful balance. The opposite of indulgent.
And this, I think, is where the danger lies. Like bringing any beloved book — ESPECIALLY a book from childhood — to life on the big screen, a filmmaker is competing with the ideal in our heads. More so, with SSTD, a filmmaker is competing with how Schwartz and Gammell inspired our fears to morph, mutate, and run screaming into the night.
Can Guillermo del Toro do it? I don't know. I'm inclined to think that if any director/producer/writer working right now can do it, he can. But I'm still worried.
Someone on the Creepy Corner Facebook page (yes, it exists!) pointed out, "He really seems to understand those uniquely childhood terrors." I don't disagree with this.
In Mama and The Orphanage or El Orfanato (two movies in which he served as executive producer), there is a strong sense of those fears of childhood — what's in the closet? what's in the shadows? did you see that? — lurking throughout the films. A darkness that totters between playful and terrifying. Personally I don't think that Mama maintains its tension through the end, but I enjoyed a lot of that movie.
And you can't talk about fears, fantasy and del Toro without mentioning Pan's Labyrinth. Written, directed, and produced by del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth is a twisted, nightmarish fantasy that doesn't pull any punches in regard to the fears of children; especially considering the background of war.
The Mexican director responded strongly to the horror lurking under the surface of classic fairy tales and had no interest in making a children's film, but instead a film that looked horror straight in the eye. He also rejected all the hackneyed ideas for the creatures of movie fantasy and created (with his Oscar-winning cinematographer, art director and makeup people) a faun, a frog and a horrible Pale Man whose skin hangs in folds from his unwholesome body.
Though nothing like how I would imagine a SSTD movie, Pan's Labyrinth gives me hope for an adaptation of Schwartz and Gammell's work.
But of course, I have my own wishes and dreams for the film — just like I'm sure you do.
I don't claim to be an expert on filmmaking, I don't even claim to be an expert on what scares people. It's a very personal thing. But I do believe that I have an understanding on what spurs our fears, what gives our imaginations a shove. I first learned those things from "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark".
And while it's still probably a long way off (development has just begun, and del Toro still has to complete the sequel to Pacific Rim among other films), I'd like to share three of my wishes for a SSTD movie.
Please Don't Show Us Too Much
There are so many eerie movies I've LOVED... until the last 10 or 15 minutes. It's in those last few minutes that the director often can't resist but show us the monster or ghost going berserk. Most of the time, what the director shows is far less frightening than what we've been imagining. I really hope that del Toro doesn't fall into this trap.
My hope is that del Toro takes his cue from Gammell's art, when deciding how much ghost or creature to show us. Del Toro, who owns some of Gammell's original artwork from the books, has called the illustrations "scary as fuck." In my opinion, the art is "scary as fuck" because of what we see, as well as what we don't see.
When Gammell shows us the young ghost woman with "flesh dropping off her face" in The Haunted House ("Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark") there is restraint. The gore is not overdone but still, we can almost see the flesh dripping from her bones.
Sometimes you just see a dark, vaguely human shadow. Other times, it's a picture that maybe if you "rolled the footage back" a frame or two THAT'S where the horror would be (I love the artwork from The Curse in "More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"). Often seeing the worst isn't even necessary. We don't need to see Harold laying out a "bloody skin to dry in the sun" to know he's HORRIBLE.
Like the books, I hope del Toro shows us just enough to send our creepy little minds reeling.
WTF Nightmare World
Stephen Gammell and Alvin Schwartz know what our nightmares look like. Or maybe they put those nightmares in our head. I'm not sure which came first.
Like our nightmares, there is a chilling lack of "normal" or "sense" to a lot of the imagery. Just look at the artwork for the Oh, Susannah! story from "More Scary Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark". What the hell is going on there?
I see what looks like a human in a rocking chair in outer space, with a giant brain cell on a leash, while what appears to be demonic Slimer from Ghostbusters hovers above. I don't really get it, but it doesn't take away from the story. Somehow "WTF" makes sense in the SSTD world.
And it's not just the images. Slithery-Dee? A Man Who Lived in Leeds? Ba-Room? The short poems and songs are some of the most eerily puzzling parts of the books (not to mention darkly cheeky). But I don't need to completely understand everything, it all feeds into the nightmarish character of each collection.
It may seem like a SSTD no-brainer, but I really hope that del Toro can incorporate some of that distorted, "WTF am I looking at?" quality into the film.
Remember They Were Meant for Kids
While kids and grown-ups love it so, I think it's important to remember that SSTD was aimed at kids ages nine and up.
Part of the charm of the books is how plain and unadorned the telling of the stories are. Kids aren't necessarily going to have the attention span for long explanations or writerly detail, so Schwartz just dives right in:
"While Ruth slept, a spider crawled across her face."
"There was a haunted house where every night a bloody head fell down the chimney."
"A boy was digging at the edge of the garden when he saw a big toe."
Maybe I have the attention span of a nine-year-old, but isn't there a certain amount of glee when you know a story isn't going to bore you with the details, it's just going to build to the good part?
In folktales and urban legends, like the ones Schwartz presents, the reader is asked to accept the weird stuff and just keep on chugging along.
A man is frightened that his DIY life-sized doll is growing. His friend concurs. We share in their fear. On goes the story. We already know that no good can come of this. (From the Harold story in "Scary Stories 3")
I really hope that del Toro can hold onto this simplicity of storytelling, regardless whether the movie is geared towards kids or adults or both. To me it is the core of SSTD. This doesn't mean he has to sacrifice visual detail or childlike whimsy (please don't!), but I do hope that his storytelling is always in service of "the good part."
So tell us Creepy Corneristas, what are your hopes for the "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" movie adaptation? What are your fears? What stories do you hope to see included?
GUILLERMO! If you are reading this PLEASE include The Drum!