SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is the latest film from director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), and is an adaptation of the beloved collection of short horror stories from author Alvin Schwartz featuring terrifying illustrations from Stephen Gammell. The film stars Zoe Colletti (2014’s Annie), Michael Garza (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), Gabriel Rush (Moonrise Kingdom), Austin Abrams (HBO’s Euphoria), Dean Norris (AMC’s Breaking Bad), Gil Bellows (Jett), Austin Zajur (Fist Fight), and Natalie Ganzhorn (Make It Pop).
To best describe the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time – stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying home.”
First and foremost, I think it’s important to note that I’m a massive fan of Alvin Schwartz’s collection of stories. I can honestly attribute Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark as my gateway into horror. That said, I’m sure you can imagine how nervous and excited I was for this live-action adaptation of a collection of books I hold near and dear to me. That said, I think the execution of the film was done in a way that kept the spirit of the books alive while also allowing a new generation of fans to embrace the horrors that we, the older generation, experienced upon reading them as kids. At its core, this is a coming-of-age film that focuses on a group of teens who find a book of scary stories written by the elusive and mysterious Sarah Bellows. Using that as the wraparound tale, it allows for these Schwartz’s famous stories to come alive through Sarah Bellows. I don’t want to spoil anything in regards to her background or what we come to learn, but she’s pivotal in conjuring all the horror that unfolds. In regards to Schwartz’s stories, the four that are focused on the most are “The Big Toe”, “Harold”, “The Red Spot” and my personal favorite, “The Dream” which features The Pale Lady. Along with these creatures, we also get an amalgamation of Schwart’z other characters through the introduction of the Jangly Man. Each of these monsters are pure nightmare fuel and their moments on screen are the most impactful; so much so, that there were moments when I actually found myself feeling uneasy and scared during the film.
In terms of the narrative, which is pushed along by Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) finding Sarah Bellow’s book of scary stories, this gives the viewers a glimpse into each of the characters as well as their fears in relation to each story being told. Themes of abandonment as well as being drafted during the Vietnam War play a pivotal role in not only the story but how that fear is represented in some of the creatures actions. I found that the intertwining of each, meaning the realistic fears and those of the supernatural, gave our protagonists an even stronger desire to conquer the horrors that await them. I will say that some of the performances left a bit to be desired, which I think is attributed to some of the writing, which left some of the characters feeling flat. However, one of my favorite performances was that of Austin Abrams, who plays Tommy. Being a massive fan of HBO’s Euphoria, I was happy to see that his character in SCARY STORIES was completely different than that of Ethan in Euphoria. Instead of playing the nerdy good guy, he instead plays a jock who is quick to use racist slurs towards Ramón (Michael Garza) while also commanding his presence by invoking his toxic male behavior. Seeing him play two different types of roles so effectively is a testament to his talent, but don’t worry, Tommy quickly learns the consequences of his actions when he comes face to face with Harold.
As for the creature designs, this is where the movie truly shines the brightest. Having heard Guillermo del Toro speak on the creation of these monsters, I was blown away by the amount of practical effects utilized. Each creature is just as terrifying as the next and outside of the SFX used, we must also applaud the actors that took on these monstrosities. Most will recognize the name Javier Botet from his roles in REC and IT, but in SCARY STORIES he’s the creature looking for their big toe. Mark Steger, who some might be familiar with from his work as the Demogorgan in Stranger Things, takes on two roles as both Harold and The Pale Lady. Lastly, Troy James, who has appeared in both 2019’s Hellboy and Channel Zero: The Dream Door, is downright unnerving as the Jangly Man. Obviously the mixture of their performances, along with the impressive practical effects, are what effectively make these creatures so fear-inducing. Though “The Red Spot” doesn’t have a singular creature per say, it’s still one of the more unsettling and nerve wracking moments of the film. I’m not a big fan of bugs so I was cringing the entire time during that scene. Furthermore, what really made this film so special to me was the attention to detail in making sure each monster looked almost exactly the same as Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, a feat that I can’t imagine was easy to do.
Even with a few bumps along the way, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK successfully executes a film for a new generation of horror lovers while giving fans of the book the nostalgia that they crave. Those involved have a deep love for these stories which I think translated beautifully into the film. I do think the overarching story needed some work but even so, most will remember the film for the nightmarish imagery, just as the books still do to this day. SCARY STORIES is a film that I look forward to sharing with those who are just venturing into the horror landscape in hopes that someday they will also pass on these stories, whether through the film or the books, to a new generation. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK arrives in theaters August 9, 2019. For more on SCARY STORIES check out our write up on the San Diego Comic-Con panel, here.