BY ROCCO THOMPSON
“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout…”
Cody Meirick’s SCARY STORIES begins quietly, measuredly as if taking a cue from Alvin Schwartz himself on the lost art of telling a good ghost story: “…the best way is to speak softly, so that your listeners lean forward to catch your words, and to speak slowly, so that your voice sounds scary.” Meirick’s first interviewee is musician Joe Whiteford who muses: “Death…it’s a good thing. We should teach our children it’s a good thing,” before we’re treated to his bewitching, Gordon Gano-ish rendition of The Hearse Song (likely the only earworm ever to mention actual worms) as the opening credits flicker by.
In this way, SCARY STORIES taps the same vein from which Alvin Schwartz’s legendary series of scary tales for tots flowed—the inherent human fear of and desire for the cessation of life, and all the ooey-gooey grotesqueries that come with it. Aside from this eerie and seductive opening, Meirick’s debut feature (three years in the making) bears all the telltale marks of a work of untested skill and die-hard fandom: by turns fascinating, dull, brilliant, and frustrating.
To tell the tale of prolific folklorist and children’s author Alvin Schwartz—who wrote over fifty books in a thirty-year period—and the ignominy/adoration that his masterpiece three volume series Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark would bring him, Meirick sought out scholars, family members, fans and foes, each with a unique and compelling take on just what these books mean to them and the culture at large. The most fascinating subjects are the scribe’s regretful son, Peter, who never appreciated his father’s legacy until it was far too late, and Sandy Vanderberg, one of the concerned parents who spear-headed the campaign to remove the books from school libraries, making them the most-banned of the 90s and landing them on the American Library Association’s list of “most challenged books” for two decades.
The interviews provide great content and food for thought (the brief moments R.L. Stine is onscreen are small treasures) though the structure and thematic hangups of SCARY STORIES often leave them feeling like unmoored non-sequiturs. Ask virtually anyone what they remember of the book series and the answer will be unanimously the same: the illustrations of Stephen Gammell. It’s curious then, that Meirick front-loads the film with the art-focused portion (as if to get it out of the way) which spends an inordinate amount of time on fan artists taking inspiration from Gammell’s work, rather than analyzing the work itself. Compare this to the heart of the film, where Meirick and co. exhaustively pick apart the various folktales that Schwartz re-told (with words like “promethean” and “parable” liberally bandied about) and SCARY STORIES starts to look a bit like one of Gammell’s high-contrast monstrosities: one side bloated to bursting, the other shriveled, wispy and gaunt from neglect.
Meirick’s stylistic peccadillos are also copious, though it’s easy to applaud his willingness to throw so many ideas against the proverbial wall. Many of the interviewees are situated in decaying buildings, a fun and fitting backdrop considering the subject matter. There’s a nicely done, recurring interlude animated in a style aping Gammell’s depicting a librarian named Miriam who has to contend with her principal’s repeated attempts to remove the Scary Stories books. Some of the less successful elements: the relentless, tootling synth that underscores everything, and an extended scene in which an actress blandly tells the entirety of Schwartz’s “The Red Spot” to two young girls, unnecessarily re-iterating a story which the film’s audience will have heard a dozen times before, told a dozen times more skillfully.
And then there’s the climax in which Peter Schwartz and Sandy Vanderberg sit down for a confrontation. During the screening I attended, my cohort leaned over and whispered: “This is such a bizarre exchange,” and really, there is no other word for it. This once-in-a-lifetime meeting goes off like a wet firework, bringing the film to an end not with a bang, but something like a squelchy thud. Meirick’s greenness and foibles as a documentarian are never more sharply apparent than here, when he is either unwilling or able to mine some much-needed catharsis from this fateful moment.
Yet, for all the faults one can find in SCARY STORIES’ presentation, it’s still a watchable, warm, lovingly-rendered doc that’s at its best when its questioning what draws us human beings to these spooky entertainments–whether it’s the demystifying of death itself, the primal thrill of what Schwartz affectionately called “hoo-ha’s,” Gammell’s drawings that seem to view the viewer as the viewer views them, or the dangerous aura of those things deemed forbidden by puritanical parents. SCARY STORIES may not quite capture the dark magic of the books it seeks to understand, but it’s an enjoyable and nostalgic bit of fan service, full of joy and curiosity for its subject that largely succeeds in rescuing Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark from the banned book ghetto. Meirick may lack the seasoned documentarian’s ability to make the material sing, but the chorus of voices he’s assembled to defend the series is a deafening reminder of the brilliance of its creator, whose dedication to the age-old art of storytelling breathed new life into the myths, folktales, and urban legends that continue to define so many cultures, and hold countless children in thrall with the power of the well-spun yarn. Apologies to Harold, but SCARY STORIES gets just enough right for Meirick to hold on to his skin.
For now, that is…