Thanks to del Toro and Øvredal's combined efforts, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does justice by the delightfully sinister books that inspired it.
Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark short story collections - complete with Stephen Gammell's nightmarish illustrations during their original run - have served as a stepping stone between more kid-friendly horror books (a la Goosebumps) and the world of adult horror literature for a few decades now. It's only fitting, then, that its movie adaptation should follow suit and offer a spine-tingling experience that's a little richer and more mature than, say, the Goosebumps series, but stops just short of being R-rated. And in the hands of cowriter-producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) and director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), it's still a deliciously chilling piece of filmmaking, no matter your age. Thanks to del Toro and Øvredal's combined efforts, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does justice by the delightfully sinister books that inspired it.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark picks up in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania circa 1968, just as Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti) - an introverted, horror-loving geek and aspiring writer - and her nerdy pals "Auggie" Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush) and "Chuck" Steinberg (Austin Zajur) are preparing for Halloween night. When their attempt to take revenge on their longtime tormenter Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) goes sideways, they manage to escape with a little help from Ramón Morales (Michael Garza), a quiet young man who's passing through town. The three then invite Ramón on a trip to the long-abandoned Bellows mansion, a local legend and (supposedly) haunted house. But when Stella finds a book of scary short stories written by the Bellows' mysterious daughter Sarah, she and the others come to learn just how real the legend truly is.
Although del Toro shares writing credit with four other people here - namely, his Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia collaborators Dan and Kevin Hageman, as well as Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (Saw 4-7) for their earlier draft - Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has his fingerprints all over it. It touches on his favorite themes about the importance of disobedience and not blindly following those in positions of power and authority, and smoothly weaves them into a horror parable about the impact of stories (which, like much of del Toro's work, is ultimately circular in structure). The film's attempts to juxtapose the mystery of Sarah Bellows and the monsters her book unleashes with the state of things in the late '60s (a world of even more rampant racism, the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon's election) can be on the nose, and some of Schwartz's original spooky tales are incorporated more organically than others. Nevertheless, as a whole, the movie is successful at reshaping its source material into a unified plot that stands on its own (a tacked-on sequel tease aside).
On the surface, admittedly, that story has a lot in common with the first IT movie, from its setting (a small town with a dark secret) to its marginalized or misfit teenagers. But at the same time, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is more ground-breaking when it comes to which young characters get the spotlight. In this case, it's Stella and Ramón who are the film's true leads, with Stella joining the pantheon of great del Toro heroines thanks to a combination of the writing and Colletti's multifaceted performance. She and Garza further rise to the occasion during their most emotionally daunting scenes, with Dean Norris (who plays Stella's father) doing some heavy lifting of his own in a small, but relevant subplot involving Stella's absent mother. Auggie and Chuck are more stereotypical characters by comparison (Auggie's neurotic, Chuck is loud), as is Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), Chuck's older sister, and Abrams as Tommy, your typical jock-bully. Still, the movie's heroes are likable and leave you hoping (in vain) that nothing bad will happen to them.
Behind the camera, Øvredal succeeds in delivering effectively bloodless, PG-13 scares, including a pair of moments involving some nasty body horror. In general, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does a good job of mixing things up when it comes to its creepiest scenes. There are jump scares, of course, but other sequences build up tension and dread by having monsters slowly, yet relentlessly stalk their victims instead. Similarly, the historical set design is as detailed as audiences have come to expect from a del Toro production these days (even one he didn't direct), and the score by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich has an ominous, but mischievous sound that matches the mood the film at large is going for. And of course, performers like Javier Botet and Troy James deserve a tip of the hat for bringing the movie's creatures to sickening life through practical means.
With October still a ways off, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark provides some welcome late-summer spookiness with all the depth and aesthetic qualities of del Toro's directorial efforts. The film is probably too freaky for most kids - and will surely traumatize a number of adults, at that - but it's otherwise perfect for teenagers and/or those looking for something that's not quite as intense as this season's R-rated horror titles. As for those who grew up enjoying the original story collections: this movie adaptation may yet remind of what it felt like being scared out of your wits by those books the first time around.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 111 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.
- Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (2019) release date: Aug 09, 2019