Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Michael Garza
Directed by: André Øvredal
Screenplay by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo Del Toro
Based on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Alvin Schwartz’s 1980s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books served as my introduction to horror. I remember borrowing the series from the library and taking turns with my siblings reading them to each other. The stories not only provided just enough creepy and scare factor to my life. The drawings done by Stephen Gammell were like something I’d never seen before. These black and white illustrations are unsettling and made me feel like I was looking at something that should have been forbidden in my strict household. When the monster master himself Guillermo Del Toro announced he would be producing the film adaptation of this book series and Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal would be directing, I immediately got excited.
If the name André Øvredal doesn’t ring a bell, he is the horror genius behind film The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). This was one of my favorite films from the Toronto International Film Festival of the same year it was released. Like any sort of adaptation, a part of you worries how well the film will stay true to the literature. I wondered how they planned to weave each short story together.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes place in 1968 — about two decades before the original books themselves — in a small town called Mill Valley in Pennsylvania. The Vietnam war is going strong, and the Presidential election is well on its way with Nixon leading the polls for his second term. We meet Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), an outcast high schooler obsessed with all things horror and a passion for writing. We follow her and her two friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) on Halloween night. They plan to seek their revenge on the high school bully, Tommy. It is while on the run from their successful prank that they find themselves in a car with Ramon (Michael Garza), a Latino drifter passing through while parked at the local drive-in watching Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Ramon connects with Stella immediately and helps them escape Tommy. Stella takes him and her friends to a “real haunted house” that once belonged to Sarah Bellows — a young woman who, legend has it, was locked in the basement by her family for being different. She told scary stories to the town’s children through the walls of the home. One day, the children started dying and said it was her stories that came to life to claim them all.
They eventually stumble into her bedroom and find her book of scary stories written in blood. Stella takes the book home with her and awakens the curse. The book begins to write scary stories on its own with fresh blood, naming each of her friends who disappear one by one if they do not save them first. It’s a bit of a race against time that adds a thriller and suspense element to the film.
This is how they incorporate the short story classics like “Harold,” “The Red Spot,” and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” throughout the movie. Is it effective? Sometimes. I found some stories fit better into the bigger narrative than others, but overall, it felt a little forced. Some of the stories are changed up as well, like Harold’s which has a gorier ending to that of the film’s retelling. I was hoping for more of a Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt Keeper vibe, where the stories would stand-alone making up the film length, but I understand that it may have been a harder sell in Hollywood.
That said, I never felt bored while watching. I was completely invested throughout and even found myself at the edge of my seat in certain scenes. Øvredal builds tension in the film so well that he actually got me with the jump scares that are sprinkled throughout. This isn’t your usual paint-by-number horror in that sense, and you can tell a lot of thought and care was put into how he was going to scare the audience.
The monsters look amazing, and that’s not surprising when Guillermo Del Toro is involved. They recreate some of the horrific figures, bringing Stephen Gammell’s illustrations from the book to life using little-to-no CGI. The woman with a pale face, black eyes, and long hair as described in the short story “The Dream” was my favorite to see on the big screen. She is perfectly recreated, and her scene (although much different to the original story in the books) is disturbing, scary, and visually stunning.
Other scenes like “The Red Spot” involving a spider bite or “Harold” where we see a boy’s innards turn into straw are pretty gross for a 14+ movie. Nothing ever gets too out of hand. The film sets up these moments with just enough intensity and fear factor that, although the payoff isn’t as scary as a horror movie rated higher than this would be, it’s just enough to have you crawling in your skin.
The acting overall was decent. No one stood out, but no one did a terrible job, either. They don’t give a whole lot to invest personally into the characters, but as the story continues on, you do grain some fondness with some of them. I must mention how disappointing the final scene was. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark leaves us with open-ended elements that tease a possible sequel. I found myself groaning in the theater at this. As enjoyable as this movie was for me, I don’t see it being strong enough to make another, especially with how the initial plotline ends.
Although set in the 1960s, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does call out to the present political and social climate still faced today, like the upcoming American elections and racism, which are addressed in the film. No Guillermo Del Toro film goes without its allegorical commentary layered into an otherwise traditional and, at times, cliché plotline. Suitable for pre-teens and adults alike, this film could serve as a gateway for a child who may be intrigued by horror but still too young for some of the more intense horror franchises already out there. This is a movie that I see doing well on the small screen and becoming a must-watch tradition during Halloween.
If you share a nostalgia and love for the literary series like I do, you’ll enjoy how the stories you grew up reading are brought to life on the silver screen. These two magnificent filmmakers did try to craft the entertaining terror similar to the illustrations found in the books and make them come to life, and in that, they succeeded.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Monsters in the Movie9.0/10
Overall Horror Story Arc6.5/10
Staying True to the Books6.5/10
- Well recreated monsters from Stephen Gammell's infamous illustrations.
- Full of thought-out jump scares that get you when you least suspect it.
- Great cover of Season of the Witch by Lana Del Rey.
- Great for a child interested in horror but not ready for the more intense horror franchises out there.
- Guillermo Del Toro and Andre Ovredal make a great filmmaking duo.
- Not a very original or investing story overall.
- The scary stories used were changed up to fit the initial plot line.
- Disappointing ending and payoff.
- Not enough character build up to make us invested enough to them.