If you’re under the age of thirty-five, chances are that you’ve at least heard of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
First debuting in 1981, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a novel series written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Even if you didn’t read them growing up (having gone to a private school, I sadly had no access to them), you’ve probably at least seen some of Gammell’s drawings in passing as they were creepy enough to cause kids to lose sleep for nights on end.
Now, the anthology series is being turned into a feature film from Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows three long-time friends — Stella (Wildlife’s Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) — along with their new acquaintance, Rámon (Michael Garza), during a night in which all kinds of mistakes were made.
To be fair, not all of the mistakes are their fault, strictly speaking, but they’re hands certainly aren’t completely clean, either.
It’s Halloween night in a small, sleepy village in the 1960s (oh, my heart, what a perfect setting). Having nothing better to do, the four high-school students decide they’ll spend the evening exploring an abandoned house that, legend says, is haunted by the ghost of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard).
Way back in the 1800s, Sarah was kept locked away in the basement by her family. She was apparently battling some kind of mental illness that made others perceive her as insane, which also tied her to some local crimes that she most likely didn’t actually commit. Rather than getting her the help she needed, the rest of the Bellows instead decided to hide Sarah away from the rest of the world and ignore the problem entirely.
While all the Bellows have now passed away, legend says that if you enter their house, tap on the walls and ask Sarah to read you a scary story, she’ll do so.
There are two catches, however. The first is that the story is likely going to be either about you or somebody who you know and, at the end of the story, the subject is probably going to end up gutted by some kind of monster or something along the lines. The second, and far more alarming, is that the stories are all allegedly supposed to come true.
Now, Stella and the gang (this really is like an extended Scooby-Doo episode, in a lot of ways) figure this is all just local lore — that is, until, they find Sarah Bellow’s book deep within the confines of the abandoned mansion.
When the book begins to magically write itself using blood as ink and then the subjects the book identifies start to go missing in town, it suddenly doesn’t feel like make-believe anymore.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t for the horror fans who want to see something new and inventive in every new film. It isn’t for those who only dabble in the genre when something like Midsommar or Us receives all kinds of critical praise, either.
Rather, this is a movie for the horror fans who know and love the hallmarks of the genre. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t trying to do anything all that different, but it’s also not trying to do anything all that different — the tropes are familiar, but they’re going to have fun with them anyway.
In that, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark really becomes a late-night slumber party kind of movie for those who might be new to horror. For tweens who want to watch something that’s going to scare them but won’t scar them for years to come, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is about as good of a start into the genre as you can ask for.
That’s why I had fun with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — it’s a movie that knows exactly what vibe it wants to put out there and who it’s for, and it delivers on all of that almost two-fold.
Now, Øvredal and del Toro were in a tricky situation with this film from day one. The novels, I’ve been told, are all a collection of very short stories that couldn’t support an entire film by themselves (I’ve heard some suggest that they should have gone a Love, Death & Robots style Netflix show instead, which I think could have been equally interesting), meaning they had to find a way to turn this into a feature film.
Again, I haven’t read the novels and therefore can’t speak to how well this captures the source material, but there’s still no denying that those individual short story segments are still the best parts of the movie.
Whenever that book opens, you know you’re in for a good, fun scare. Even if the first couple were a little tame and dimly lit (as cool as Harold looks, I couldn’t tell what was happening during that scene) Øvredal’s talents really come through during the latter half of these sequences as he comes up with these insane creatures — especially that of the Pale Lady (easily the best part of the movie) and the Jangly Man.
Everything in-between those scares is a bit fluffy, if we’re being honest. The performances are all various degrees of fine, but everyone is playing generic character types that are pretty tired at this point. They try to flesh out a few of them, but those moments often come at awkward times and just feel like pointless attempts to give this movie some kind of dramatic backbone.
There’s also a few wasted opportunities in here; including a climactic payoff that doesn’t amount to much, a misused performance from the always great Dean Norris and a set-up for a sequel that we probably don’t need.
Still, individual moments and the overall atmosphere within Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are so good that part of me wants to look past all of that. I can’t completely, of course — I’m a critic after all — but the good still seems to outweigh the bad.
Really, if you’re at that age where you’re looking for something a little more mature than Goosebumps but maybe aren’t quite ready to tackle It yet, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the film you’ve been waiting for.
Watch the trailer for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought of the film!