SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK ****
André Øvredal, USA | Canada
“Stories hurt, and stories heal … they make us who we are.” Especially childhood stories, and particularly when they are scary. This same-titled film’s based on Alvin Schwartz’s 1981 iconic anthology series of horror tales, steeped in folklore and urban legends, for children. Working from a great screenplay, Norwegian director André Øvredal demonstrates a fertile imagination in SCARY STORIES.
Kids still go door-to-door trick-or-treating, the Vietnam War’s raging, and U.S. presidential elections loom on this Halloween night in 1968. Suitably costumed, high school friends Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck’s (Austin Zajur) mischievous payback plans backfire. Concurrently, while Ramón (Michael Garza) gasses up passing through town, Chief Turner (Gil Bellows) examines him. In due course, to dodge the town bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), the four teens go to the Bellows’ house that’s haunted. Mill Valley’s founder and paper mill magnate’s daughter Sara’s (Kathleen Pollard) face is mysteriously scratched out of every existing photograph. Scary yes, but not nearly so much as what follows their breaking that lock and traipsing into the chilling past.
Evenly paced and well-crafted, the true wizards are the makeup department team’s astounding artistry, and atmospheric recreations of some of the original illustrations by Stephen Gammell in Schwartz’s anthology. Besides the shrewdly worded screenplay’s eeriness, Guillermo del Toro’s (The Shape of Water, 2017) contribution is evident in recreating that period’s nostalgia, turmoil, and ghostly reminders. Entwined in this suspenseful murder-cum-detective story are jump out of your skin scenes, too. Legend has it: “Ask Sara to tell a story after dark it’ll be the last story you’ll hear…” Since stories are so powerful they can become real, why not find out for yourself. (MH)
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN ****1/2
Farhad Safinia (as P.B. Shemran), Ireland 2019
In 1856, under the leadership of Sir James Murray (Mel Gibson), the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) started. The scholar and talented linguist, with a small team, excitedly, and anxiously tackle the daunting task. Quickly ascertaining a comprehensive, accurate dictionary must include every known word, plus its variations with examples, Murray asks for the public’s help—essentially “crowd sourcing,” although that term is conceived over a century later. Thus, Murray and Dr. W. C. Minor (Sean Penn) serendipitously meet. The retired United States Army surgeon’s a prolific, and accurate early contributor. Repeatedly, the amateur philologist meets and dispels Murray’s challenges. Currently residing near Crowthorne in Berkshire, England; what the professor doesn’t know is Minor’s in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, so has much time to volunteer. With his cultured demeanor, Army pension, and extensive personal library the educated Minor’s permitted a certain leniency. Irrespectively, Minor contributes over 10,000 entries, including quotations, earning a commendation from Murray in 1899, as well as lifelong friendship.
Based on Simon Winchester’s novel, The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words, the book and film releases in USA and Canada is titled, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Iranian director-co-writer Farhad Safinia’s (as P.B. Shemran) cast is sterling, in additional to consummate actors Gibson and Penn delivering brilliant performances. The production design and costumes, cinematography, and music atmospherically and authentically take us back to the 17th century. Only Minor’s flashback sequences are somewhat faulty. Original and fresh, the film’s historical value, quality acting and captivating interpretation has a lasting, meaningful impact – it’s cinema for cinephiles. (MH)