‘Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark’: Horror For A New Generation – Movie Review

I don’t know about you guys, but I grew up reading Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark book series, taking out the school library’s only copies over and over until the pages were thin and the covers were frayed (sorry, Webster Middle School librarian). I loved that they were set up to read out loud, with the dark, uncomfortable tension of some of the best campfire stories. However, the most terrifying aspect of these books were the illustrations. Caldecott Award winner Stephen Gammell drew those pictures back in the early ’80s, and they’re still just as terrifying as they were the first time I cracked open those forbidden books. So, when I first heard that Pan’s Labyrinth’s Guillermo del Toro and The Autopsy of Jane Doe’s André Øvredal were teaming up to bring these disturbing creatures to life for the silver screen, I was pretty freaking excited. But I still had to wonder… what stories would they choose? And would they do Gammell’s illustrations justice?

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was directed by Øvredal from a story co-written by del Toro, Feast’s (2005) Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, and Dan and Kevin Hageman (LEGO Movie 2014). The cast includes Zoe Margaret Colletti (Annie 2014), Michael Garza (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I 2014), Austin Abrams (The Walking Dead TV series), Gabriel Rush (The Grand Budapest Hotel 2014), Austin Zajur (Vanoss Superhero School TV series), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad TV series) and Natalie Ganzhorn (The Night Before Halloween 2016). Once again, IT Chapter 1’s Javier Botet (read our interview with him here) and Hellboy’s (2019) Troy James took on the roles of the monsters. Geoff Hill (Diary Of The Dead 2007), Brian Wade (Vice 2019), Norman Cabrera (Planet of the Apes 2001), Mike Hill (The Shape Of Water 2017 – read our review here), François Dagenais (The Blob 1988) and Tenille Shockey (IT Chapter 2 2019) coordinated the practical FX while the talented team of Mr. X FX created the visual FX.

What Works

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is a fantastic movie. It’s the perfect step up for kids who have outgrown Goosebumps and Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, with all of the scares but none of the blood and gore found in more adult horror films. Everything kicks off in 1968 on a gorgeously lighthearted Halloween evening, as Chuck (Zajur), Auggie (Rush) and Stella (Colletti) get ready to go out on their last Night Of Witches before they admit that they are officially too old to go Trick or Treating. The scenes are set up perfectly to show the magic of All Hallows Eve… combined with every annoying family member that teenagers have to deal with before a night out. Behind the safe scares of the holiday are the very real terrors of the war in Vietnam and the unsteady political climate of the time. Characters were signing up (or not) to go overseas in front of Patriotic posters encouraging support for the war, while news of the election of Richard Nixon blared from every television. If this was the reason the filmmakers decided to go with this time period, then I think they picked a good one.

Zoe Colletti as Stella in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

I was also impressed with both the script and the performances from the four main young actors. These characters were awkward, pushy, frustrated, teasing and emotional, just like real kids. They’re actually played by actual teenagers, not 20-somethings with clear faces and perfect fashion sense. Even the handmade Halloween costumes were spot on (with a special shoutout to Chuck’s Spider-Man). The older teens reminded me of the big kids from films like The Goonies, IT and Stand By Me, filled with the perfectly immature evil that so many secondary villains are born to let loose. I couldn’t wait to see them get their comeuppance.

The visual portrayal of several of Gammell’s early ’80s monsters is spot on. “The Pale Lady” and “Harold” the Scarecrow – the sounds he makes as he comes alive are teeth-jarring – are my favorite parts of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, with their pale, wrinkled, bug-infested bodies so like the illustrations from the books. I can see why they made changes to “The Red Dot” spiders and “The Big Toe” corpse, as the current renditions work better as visuals. Honestly, “The Haunted House” ghost was a bit too hard to see onscreen, as she was mostly in the dark and continuously changing. I was highly impressed with Troy James’ Jangly Man, with his contorted body, huge teeth and ability to sew himself back together making for a terrifying creature. Although, there is no specific Scary Stories tale that he’s tied to. He appears to be a monster based on the stories “Aaron Kelly’s Bones,” “What Do You Come For?” where the skeleton falls down the chimney and dances around the room and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker.” These monsters are all great choices, but one can only hope that a sequel (please!) will bring a few more of Gammell’s dark, sketchy creatures to life.

The actual story for the film is nicely paced and well rounded. The action starts in the first few minutes as the teens play a Halloween prank on older boy, Tommy (Abrams), and Chuck’s sister, Ruthie (Ganzhorn), and in perfect ebb and flow, things continue steadily along until the final confrontation. As a horror fan, I love the dark ending of the film and the fact that they left it open for a sequel, although my heart is a bit heavy at the way things were left as the final credits rolled.

What Doesn’t Work

There’s not much of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark that disappointed me, although there are a few things I’d like to mention. I wish that the old woman, Lou Lou (Lorraine Toussaint: Orange Is The New Black TV series), had more screen time, explaining her origins and how she tied into the story. It was almost as if she was put there as a formulaic step to exposition rather than as an important character, which she seemed to be, especially in the ghost, Sarah Bellows’, young life. What connected these two? What else could she have told about the family that she wasn’t used to say?

My only other complaint is a common one. I wish they hadn’t given away so much in the trailer. Every monster was shown, and the one that was semi-hidden was then used in the updated poster artwork. What ever happened to keeping things hidden until a film’s opening? I was excited to see new stories and creatures once I paid for my ticket, but after the film was finished, I realized that there had been no real surprises here. Why do filmmakers do that? Why do they show their hand before a movie even releases? It’s disappointing, to say the least, to the person who’s paying to see all of your hard work. Keep a few surprises behind the curtain!

The Pale Lady corners Chuck (Austin Zajur) in the hospital hallway.

Final Thoughts on Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

I thoroughly enjoyed Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. I love that there is now a movie for younger horror fans to transition to before diving head first into Friday the 13th, Halloween and Hatchet. Guillermo del Toro has a real heart for children and the magical world in which they love, knowing when to up the ante and when to pull back. Don’t get me wrong – the film is attention-grabbing for adults as well, with its nostalgic monsters and action-packed storyline. Do yourself a favor, and check this one out.

About Tracy Allen

As the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of PopHorror.com, Tracy has learned a lot about independent horror films and the people who love them. Now an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, she hopes the masses will follow her reviews back to PopHorror and learn more about the creativity and uniqueness of indie horror movies.

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