Review: SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK Delivers A Solid Spook Show
André Øvredal directs a young ensemble cast in this adaptation of a young adult horror classic
I was a scared little kid. Traumatized by a viewing of Plan 9 From Outer Space at seven (I know, I know), I steered clear of anything horror related until well into my adolescence for fear of causing my psyche permanent damage. However, it was difficult to avoid Alvin Schwartz's ubiquitous horror series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. A trio of short story collections that first appeared in 1981, the Scary Stories series was everywhere throughout my childhood in the '80s and early '90s. No matter how hard I fought to avoid them, the covers, masterfully illustrated by Stephen Gammell, both beckoned to me and taunted me with promises of the terror that lay within those pages.
By the time I overcame my fears and jumped headlong into horror obsession in high school, the books seemed too childish to be worth revisiting, and I instead devoured all things Stephen King. However, those covers always stayed with me. Their haunting imagery etched into my brain forever.
Now, nearly forty years after the first volume was published, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark finally hits the big screen in an impressively mounted adaptation from producer Guillermo Del Toro and director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe). The duo, along with their a writing staff that includes Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan (Feast) and Dan and Kevin Hageman (Del Toro's animated Netflix series, Trollhunters) have taken this classic of young adult horror and turned it into a wonderfully mature coming of age story that puts an incredible amount of faith and respect on its young target audience.
The story centers around a group of three high school age outcasts, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Chuck (Austin Zajur), and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) who, along with a handsome drifter names Ramon (Michael Garza), stumble onto a malevolent spirit and her book of scary stories while inspecting the local haunted house in the politically tumultuous fall of 1968. Allegedly written by a town's most notorious serial killer, Sarah Bellows, the recounts numerous stories of ghastly misfortune and murder. However, when the book seems to start writing new stories all on it's own involving people in the lives of our heroes (and sometimes even our heroes themselves), it becomes clear that something must be done before everyone they care about falls victim to Sarah's ghostly whims.
Adapting a trilogy of books, each packed with over twenty stories each, was always going to be a challenge. With nearly ninety stories to choose from, there was no way Scary Stories the movie would ever be able to capture them all. However, the way in which the writers have structured the film as a supernatural mystery with monsters, is not only incredibly clever, but also allows us the time to get close to our leads and form bonds with them that makes us care about who will make it out alive.
The structure isn't exactly unique. In fact, a direct comparison to 2015's Goosebumps movie is more than a little apt. Both films adapt numerous short stories into a single entity with a wraparound in which young people have to solve a mystery. However, where Goosebumps was a children's adventure story with a few goofy monsters, Scary Stories actually does what it says on the tin, it is genuinely scary in a way that I was not prepared for, and that made in incredibly fun.
There is a large faction among the community of horror fans around the United States that gets all up in arms when a horror film receives anything less than an R rating. The idea being that a film can't be genuinely traumatizing without the kind of freedom that designation implies. However, since Scary Stories is an adaptation of a young adult book series, it wouldn't have made any sense to make the movie difficult for it's target audience to see, and so we have a PG-13 film. The wonderful news here is that this film does not feel neutered in the least, Scary Stories delivers a genuine sense of dread, numerous solid scares, and a ton of very creepy atmosphere in a way that could easily make one forget that this is a ostensibly a movie for kids.
Director André Øvredal delivers a wonderfully tense and patient horror film that is well worth the risk. Unlike so many films aimed at a similar demographic, Scary Stories gives its audience plenty of reasons to be patient and wait for the payoff. There are very few jump scares, but lots of truly spooky sequences. Øvredal has proven in the past that he understands what it takes to build tension over long periods, his last feature, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, was one of the most impressive slow burn horrors of the last decade, and he brings that skill to Scary Stories in a way that will hopefully help indoctrinate younger viewers into appreciating the rewards of a patiently paced film.
That's not to say that Scary Stories is a film without action, there are plenty of rousing thrills and super creepy monsters to go around. Fans of the books will be overjoyed to spend time with Harold the scarecrow, the Pale Lady, and especially the Jangly Man (played by "Twisty" Troy James, a personal favorite from his work in The Void and one of the few bright spots in 2019's Hellboy), all of whom get plenty of time in the spotlight. The film manages to pack in a number of the most popular stories across all three books into a nicely paced one-hundred-eleven minutes.
It's not unheard of that a film adaptation of a book is good enough that it makes me want to go back and read the source material, it actually happens with some regularity. It is, however, unusual when that book is young adult fiction that terrified me to even think about when I was a child. However, Øvredal's rousing and really fun adaptation of the Scary Stories series is one that will very likely send me back to the library to see what all those kids in Jr. High were clamoring over. I can only hope that today's kids catch the same bug from this exceptional gateway horror film.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
- André Øvredal
- Dan Hageman (screenplay by)
- Kevin Hageman (screenplay by)
- Guillermo del Toro (screenplay)
- Marcus Dunstan (story by)
- Patrick Melton (story by)
- Alvin Schwartz (novel)
- Zoe Margaret Colletti
- Michael Garza
- Gabriel Rush
- Dean Norris