SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

It’s not very often that a collection of short stories gets adapted into a feature length film. Depending on the length, like Stephen King’s “short” stories, you can work a whole feature out of it. However, when your short stories are an average of 5 pages, there’s not much to work with. You can go the short film route, episodic television, or even an anthology film. Those are the easy ways, but if you want to craft an entire narrative around a collection of shorts, that’s a whole different beast and task entirely, and far more difficult. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows a group of high school students on Halloween night, 1968. They break into your typical small-town haunted house where murders happened and also where a crazy girl named Sarah Bellows lived. Inside, they find a book containing numerous short, scary stories written by Bellows. Aspiring author Stella (Zoe Colleti) takes the book home with her, but Sarah clearly wants to write more stories. More creepy tales begin to appear in the book, all containing names of Stella’s friends. Realizing she and her friends are in danger, they work together to figure out how to stop Sarah from taking all of them away.

Reading the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series of books are some of my fondest memories of my childhood. I’ve always loved horror and author Alvin Schwartz’s had an impeccable ability at creating unsettling images in your head, even if the stories were all familiar and inspired by classic folklore and tropes. What really solidified the terror were the illustrations from Stephen Gammell, which are probably the most grotesque illustrations to ever appear in a book. Not only was I interested in seeing how the filmmakers would craft a narrative around this, but also bringing some of these images to life. When Guillermo del Toro was announced as producer and story writer, I knew it was all in safe hands. All of your fan favorites are here. Harold the Scarecrow, the White Lady, Toe Monster, and more! Thanks to some stellar practical effects and makeup, seeing these monsters come to life was beautiful and horrifying. Director André Øverdal directed the iconic creatures with a stellar visual eye, with moody lighting, camera movements, and framing. He clearly understands how to make a horror film, as well as a sure command of tone. The Scary Stories books were always a bit campy, with some stories being outright humorous, so the cheese element here was more than welcome. I had a smile on my face nearly the entire time, even during the shaky, less suspenseful ending. 

Everybody involved clearly respected the source material, and even better, actually set out to make a solid horror film. While an anthology format would have worked perfectly fine, especially to adapt more of the stories (I need an adaptation of The Viper), but what they did here worked perfectly fine. The setup is a little contrived and takes a bit of time to get there, but once it gets going, it’s all fun and games. It was a blast seeing our characters be attacked by the various monsters, with some scenes being genuinely suspenseful and tense. There’s a refreshing lack of jump scares, all of them used appropriately after a proper buildup. Even more appropriate, they always mean something, usually accompanying a character dying. Oh, yeah, this is a PG-13 horror movie where teens die and there are legitimate stakes. When you compare this to the R-rated Annabelle Comes Home, where literally nobody gets hurt, it’s pretty embarrassing for Annabelle. It just shows that a PG-13 horror film isn’t bad just because it’s PG-13 and an R-rated horror film is good because it’s R. There’s an actual score here too, unlike the formerly mentioned film, with Marco Beltrami’s incredibly creepy music, just adding to the atmosphere, especially when coupled with the detailed sound design.

It wouldn’t be as fun without all of the great characters, all perfectly cast with distinct characteristics and natural chemistry. They all have their own personal stories and struggles, which make everything even more tense, as you actually care when they’re in danger. The performances were surprisingly solid, especially since it consists mostly of teens. They all nail every beat, whether it’s horror, comedy, or drama. The standout was Chuck (Austin Zajur), who is some of the greatest comic relief in a horror film in a long time. He’s legitimately funny, with perfect timing and delivery, nearly every line cracking me up. He’s not the only funny thing, as the writing is quite clever, with amusing set-ups and payoffs that just further flesh out the character. Dean Norris, who is in the camp of actors who deserve better roles, is here too and I loved him in his limited role as Stella’s father. He gets one wonderfully emotional scene with her which sells the whole heart of the movie. The film is all about abandonment and losing people, which is echoed by Sarah Bellows taking Stella’s friends away one by one.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark could have easily been another Slender Man or The Bye Bye Man, but unlike those, this was made by people with both talent and passion. Guillermo del Toro and his team were simply the perfect team to bring this to life, as this brand of campy, surreal horror is right up his alley. But even more, del Toro always puts his entire heart and soul into every project, and it shows in every frame with the talent he assembled. I hope they’re game to do more, because all I can say is, bring on More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

8.5/10

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