For many of us, the Scary Stories books were a critical stepping stone in our adolescence. Seen as the middle ground between Goosebumps and Stephen King, these books lit the imagination of young readers ablaze, but also terrified us senseless. These books often taught us right from wrong, never take for granted what you own and other usual cautionary tales and infused them with a taste of the macabre. The grim sense of humor and mounting terror made millions of readers cower under the covers and hesitantly turn to the next page. The books, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammel, were notoriously banned from many schools and libraries, making them all the more infamous to impressionable young minds.
With successful big-screen adaptions of Goosebumps and countless other King novels, it would only seem fitting that the beloved Scary Stories series get its own adaptation. In its big-screen form, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is both a warm ode to imaginative storytelling and a spooky, entertaining time at the movies.
Director Andre Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) crafts a striking, moody atmosphere. Beginning on Halloween in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley in 1968, the inevitable election of Richard Nixon is amidst and the anxiety of the Vietnam War is felt everywhere. Outside, the autumn wind is blowing, leaves are dancing in the air and trick r’ treaters are out in full bloom. There’s a foreboding sense of dread that slowly creeps its way into the narrative.
Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) are a group of nerdy teenagers just trying to stay afloat; navigating their way to avoid bullies, personal trauma and the year that is 1968. The group of runs into a loner named Ramon (Michael Garza), who may or may not be running away from the war, but is met with some of the towns unfortunate racism. Stuck together on Halloween night on the run from local town bully, Tommy (Euphoria‘s Austin Abrams) and his goons, the group enters a haunted house rumored to be haunted by the spirit of Sarah Bellows. Bellows was a woman in the late 19th century who was accused of murdering children who later hung herself. When the group opens a transcript of eerie stories written by Sarah, new stories begin to write themselves and come to life, causing terror and mayhem to be unleashed.
Co-written and Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories is filled with del Toro’s trademark mix of horror, mystique and real-world drama. There’s an allegorical edge to Scary Stories that other films of this kind are sorely lacking. It’s heady themes are never heavy-handed and if you’re not paying too much attention, you might not even pick up on them. Contrasting Ramon’s character, we see early on Tommy bragging to his dim-witted friends, “sweet, I’m going to ‘Nam”, signaling anxiety and dread aren’t caused by just the monsters in this flick. The books were often cautionary tales that dealt with morality, so its only fitting the film adaptation with also dabble in similar territory.
Scary Stories brings the spooky, playful tone of the books to fully realized life here. Øvredal nails several set pieces, using his surroundings, camera techniques. and surreal visuals to keep you on edge. The “Harold” sequence is a prime example of how to build tension through disorienting the viewer. Although there are some jump scares, they’re mostly used humorously or as an added edge to an already nail-biting sequence. Despite the PG-13 rating and the aim for a more family-friendly audience. Scary Stories never looks down on its audience and never cheapens itself. There are some particularly gruesome and disturbing images that make this film feel fairly edgy given most other PG-13 counterparts. The stakes are real and have actual consequences for the characters.
Inspired by the recent mega-successes of It and Stranger Things, Scary Stories uses its nostalgia to set the tone. In a nostalgia-reliant pop culture, it feels refreshing that Scary Stories never falls back on tired nods to the books or the era, but instead uses them to shape the setting of the story. However, if you are a die-hard fan of the books, there are plenty of references and Easter eggs to keep you satisfied. Through some immaculate production design and strong performances, you feel transported to an authentic representation of 1968.
Keeping in check with its throwback attitude, the use of practical effects cannot go ignored. With what should be considered the ideal blend and practical and CG effects, the ghouls on display here are ripped right out of the books and look just as terrifying. The physicality of the monsters aid to the terror of whats’s on-screen and often those images are cover-your-eyes scary. The pale, dream lady, the corpse looking for their big toe and the Jangly man are just some of the characters that come out to strike fear in the hearts of viewers.
There are some moments that drag and nearly three scenes too many of characters sitting around and explaining the events that just took place. Older audiences will also likely end up a couple steps ahead of the plot and will see where its headed by the half-way point, but the journey to get there is nevertheless entertaining.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a faithful adaptation to a beloved series of books that manages to entertain and frighten in winning fashion. Although it may not have many seasoned horror vets yearning for the nightlight after leaving the theater, it should prove to be a great time for its intended demographic.