Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Horror films made for kids can still be scary. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark goes a step beyond the recent spate of Young Adult book adaptations and brings some honest frights to the screen.
Adapting a slew of short stories from the anthology of the same name, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark could have been assembled in many different ways. Rather than approaching the stories like a disjointed anthology, the very act of storytelling itself is integrated the fabric of the film.
Best friends Stella, Auggie, and Chuck (Zoe Margaret Colletti, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur) are on the run from bullies when they bump into town outsider Ramon (Michael Garza). The four then hide from the letterman jacket-wearing jerk jocks in a local alleged haunted house. There, they each take turns telling Ramon the tale of the house’s last inhabitant, Sarah Bellows. Legend has it that Sarah would tell you story if you asked, but that would be the last thing you ever heard. While hiding out in Sarah’s room, Stella finds the book of Sarah’s stories, which she takes with her when the coast is clear.
The book has all of the same tales as author Alvin Schwartz’s original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but they’re written in blood. Scarier still, new stories keep appearing on the blank pages. These stories come to life and appear to take lives as well.
Seeing the classic Stephen Gammell illustrations depicted in live action is the primary source for the scares in the film. Very little has changed from the page to the screen with good reason; these creatures are already impressively terrifying. Their limbering gaits, unnatural assembly, and even plausible creation make this an unpredictable menagerie of frights. Even those familiar with the stories will be enthralled watching these creatures hunt and destroy children.
Though Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a kids’ movie, it’s the rare example of a film made with older kids in mind. It has enough death and monsters to disturb just about anyone, but the plot and its resolution are a tad juvenile. This balance makes it easy to digest and easy to focus on the scares.
What doesn’t work as well is the political context of the film. It takes place over the week in 1968 between Halloween and Nixon’s Presidential election. We see news footage of the candidates along with reports on the Vietnam War all throughout the film, and the efforts in reminding the audience that this is the precise time when innocence was lost in America is a bit forced.
Co-scripted and produced by Guillermo del Toro, and directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is just the type of gateway horror that will fuel nightmares for an entire generation of kids, just as the books did with my own generation.