The formula for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books was simple and effective: author and folklorist Alvin Schwartz collected ghost stories, urban myths, and legends from around the world and pared them down to language that would be easily understood by a readership of children. And if some of the stories were perhaps a little tame on their own, well, that’s where the illustrations came in. Filling the pages between the text were illustrator Stephen Gammell’s abstract and haunting interpretations of the stories. It’s these illustrations that helped sear the trilogy of Scary Stories collections into the minds of budding horror fans and which landed the books on many school’s banned book lists. With their 2019 film adaptation of the books director Andre Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro attempt bring the terror and magic of the book series to a new generation of young horror fans to largely effective results.
It’s Halloween night, 1968 in Mill Valley, PA and a prank gone wrong forces Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur), and mysterious young drifter Ramón (Michael Garza) to seek refuge from local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) in the abandoned and purportedly haunted Bellows mansion. In a secret room in the basement, Stella finds a book of scary stories authored by Sarah Bellows, a woman rumored to be behind the death of local children decades prior. As Stella reads the book, new stories appear within, stories with the names of her and her friends written in them, stories where they meet terrible fates. With the help of Auggie, Chuck, and Ramón, Stella must uncover the secrets of the book and Sarah Bellows before the monsters in the book come for them.
For a movie aimed at an audience of younger teenagers, the scares in Scary Stories are incredibly effective. Stephen Gammell’s monsters, already powerful and horrific on the page, are all the more unnatural in motion. The creatures, looking as if they were lifted directly from the books, inspire unease and are placed at center stage. Brought to life via practical effects, the creatures have physical presence within the camera frame that makes them all the more horrific and Mark Steger, Javier Botet, and Troy James –all veteran movie monster actors– deserve tremendous praise for their work in these roles. The effect is that each monster encounter feels like a particularly vivid childhood nightmare. In the film’s most frightening segment, the deeply unnerving Pale Lady awaits its terrified mark around every corner, its pace never picking up faster than light stroll. Scary Stories seeks to instill dread in its viewers above all else.
Adding to the mounting dread are real world horrors between the cracks of the story. Scary Stories is at its core about the horrors committed by the men in power. As Stella and her friends uncover the truth about Sarah Bellows, they unearth the bodie s(literal and figurative) on which their town was built. Breaking through the nostalgic facade of small town America is the horror of the Vietnam war as heard on radios and TVs report news throughout the film and the impending election of Richard Nixon. As Stella struggles to shine a light on the past, Ramon, a Mexican-American drifter, must contend with both monsters and the horrors of small town white America.
Scary Stories asks a lot of its young cast, and thankfully they’re mostly up to the task. While the group dynamic of the teenage heroes will feel familiar to viewers who have seen It or Stranger Things, the cast does a fantastic job of endearing the film’s central friend group to the audience long before things take a turn for the worse. Margaret Colletti and Michael Garza, as the film’s dual leads, have the most heavy lifting, and do so admirably. If outside of this main cast, the other teens feel like they should be a little more at home in a CW drama, it doesn’t dampen things terribly much.
Scary Stories is least effective in the places where the seeds of a franchise are most obviously planted. The film feels the need to explain Sarah Bellows’ book with a detail that can’t help but make it less frightening. The film’s ending promises forthcoming answers to questions that were not asked. A book horror stories that come true is as evergreen a concept as one could want when it comes to setting up sequels, making the narrative heavy lifting the film does in its third act to position a sequel seem all the more superfluous.
Like the books from which it was adapted, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark seeks to introduce horror to a new generation and leave an impact. The film works within tried and trie tropes of the genre, but presents them with gusto and without holding back. In the tradition of its school library forebears, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark aims to terrify and create the next generation of horror fans.