Most children can’t yet process the realities of death, evil, and change. However, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book trilogy helped them bridge these gaps, and a new documentary on their legacy is lively, exhaustive, and dare I say, definitive. Director Cody Meirick’s Scary Stories is smart and fact-filled – and perhaps, most importantly – respectful to the memory of an author who seemed to have difficulty connecting with those he should have been closest to.
As we reported earlier, Meirick conducted over 40 interviews with fellow children’s book authors and pop culture historians to learn how Author Alvin Schwartz inspired them. Most of these interviews are held in suitably creepy abandoned houses, and they look like the kind of places snuff films get made. (Not that I know anything about that sort of thing.) It’s a wise artistic move, and it keeps you watching.
Illustrator Sarah Benkin says:
“[The books] still hold power even now to us as adults. But to see them as a child, they were the perfect blend of the frightening and mysterious — and even a little beautiful.”
Spooky optics aside, things actually get more magnetic in the straightforward portions devoted to Peter Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz’s son, who was estranged from his father at the time of his death in 1992. Sifting through his dad’s old books and personal effects, the soft-spoken Peter Schwartz teeters between being proud of his father and wishing he had devoted his literary talents to more “substantial” works. It’s very compelling and personal reportage, but I never got the sense that Peter Schwartz finds the cameras and questions intrusive or exploitative. Maybe the interview process was cathartic. It’s damn pretty to think so.
Also peppered throughout are bits about the books’ notorious bannings from schools and libraries, mostly over complaints about violent content and the chilling illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Archived media footage shows a collection of pearl-clutching busybodies losing their minds over content that pales in comparison to the real-life horrors of the front page of the newspaper.
In hindsight, the outrage seems so quaint. Today, a few keyboard strokes can inadvertently lead children to a video of a man being tortured to death with an ice pick. Oddly enough, this misplaced outrage is how Scary Stories makes its strongest impact.
The film closes with a peace summit between Peter Schwartz and Sandy Vrabel, the books’ most vocal and oft-cited critic, who still thinks these tomes are inappropriate for children. Cracking open some wine and munching on snacks, the two air their differences in a respectful and almost-touching fashion. Eventually, the audio of their debate disappears altogether, perhaps suggesting that some arguments are timeless.
Starting on April 26th, Scary Stories gets a limited theatrical run via Wild Eye Releasing. Locations include Los Angeles, New Orleans, Columbus and Texas. The film hits VOD on May 7th with a DVD release slated for July 16th.