The recently completed feature doc Scary Stories is screening in competition amongst doc features and Hoosier Lens as part of the 15th annual Indy Film Fest going on from April 26th - May 6th at Newfields, formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 N. Michigan Road in Midtown Indy.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Cody Meirick, Scary Stories explores the world of the whimsical, gothic-tinged Scary Stories book series, a best-selling book series that has also become one of the most challenged, and frequently banned, book series over the past thirty years or so.
Meirick's exploration is impressive, interviewing over 40 subjects and including R.L. Stine, Peter Schwartz and a host of other authors, their families and literary experts and, of course, those who objected to the series and who have fought, sometimes for years, to have them stripped from the hands of the very children who've embraced Stine's innate ability to scare the crap out of children in suspenseful and beautiful ways for years.
As a book series, Scary Stories has always had a lot of intrigue to it. The author, Alvin Schwartz, passed away before the series gained in popularity while the series' illustrator, Stephen Gammell, is notoriously reclusive. Yet, somehow, Meirick attracted the support of Schwartz's son, Alvin, and other family members and enlisted the involvement of Stine. Suddenly, a first-time filmmaker had a gangbusters feature doc.
In telling the story, Meirick adopts a most whimsical, gothic-tinged approach to Scary Stories that may very well have the same impact as the series in drawing many into the story while simultaneously pushing others away. It's a bold filmmaking approach, for the most part an effective one, but it fits nicely within the film's subject matter.
There are times that Scary Stories is an inspired work of wonder, Meirick's visual flair giving life to memories that could have easily been no more than the usual talking heads and droning on interviews. While one might think such a visual approach could dominate the stories, Meirick and his production team do a terrific job of making sure the animation becomes a companion rather than the story itself.
While it is true that the Scary Stories collection was oft-banned and censored in the 1990's, it is these sections of the documentary that feel most unnecessary as they add a sense of conflict that never really comes to life. It's hard to tell if this is a natural lacking in conflict or in Meirick's inability to capture it - it simply lacks the magic and compelling nature of the rest of the film and Scary Stories noticeably drags when it dwells on one particular case in Kirkland, Washington that isn't particularly interesting and lacks any real sense of purpose with the rest of the film.
Fortunately, for the most part Scary Stories is an immensely involving and fun to watch documentary. Told in such a way that it captures both the fun and the horror of its subject matter, Scary Stories feels like an intimate, in-depth look into the world of Schwartz and others like him including R.L. Stine and other authors. It's obvious that Meirick has worked around content before as he has a strong sense of digging deeper and adding richness to an already rich documentary. The result is that Scary Stories is a loose, slightly uneven story telling the story of a beloved yet loose and slightly uneven collection of children's horror stories.
While not quite a perfect feature doc, Scary Stories is an immensely fun and satisfying experience that will make you want to bury yourself into Schwartz's unique and inspired world.
Scary Stories is screening on Friday, April 27th at 7:15 pm in DeBoest Lecture Hall and on Monday, April 30th at 7pm also in DeBoest - both screening rooms are inside Newfields.
For more information on Indy Film Fest, visit the Indy Film Fest website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic