SCARY STORIES **** USA 2019 Dir: Cody Meirick. 84 mins
Timed to more or less coincide with the release of the Del Toro-produced box office hit SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, this is a comprehensive feature documentary about the influential “Young Adult” horror work of Alvin Schwartz. The three volumes of “Scary Stories” published in the 1980’s and 1990’s shifted over seven million books while earning the coveted position as the most banned books of the latter decade. In one of the loveliest moments of Cody Meirick’s professionally mounted documentary, Schwartz’s widow notes how thrilled her late husband was at this controversy. Harley Poe’s Joe Whiteford (whose rendition of The Hearse Song plays appropriately over the opening titles) is among those waxing lyrical about the inspiration of Schwartz’s work. Other authors, notably R.L. Stine, enthuse over the “gold standard” of the Scary Stories trilogy and welcome attention is given to Stephen Gammell for his brilliant original illustrations. Most interesting for many will be the focus on the “too gruesome for young readers” controversy generated by the self-appointed moral guardians on a mission to get the books remove from elementary schools. We see contemporary footage of the kind of God-fearing do-gooders who have enough spare time to count the number of “curse words” and sex acts in books while being remarkably oblivious to the natural fascination children have with gruesome stories. This film becomes a perceptive commentary on the need for kids to experience horror in fiction and entertainment. “They know people die but no one will talk to them about it…” notes one contributor. Anyone who grew up loving horror and realising how important the genre was to their own fears and anxieties will be particularly touched by the moment within the 1990’s footage in which a dad defends his daughter’s right to read – while emotionally regretting his own illiteracy due to a lack of opportunity when he was her age.
Review by Steven West