All horror movie addicts were kids once, and if they grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, there’s a good chance they got their start with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a children’s book collection of short stories by Alvin Schwartz, with terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell. The disturbing sketches and spooky tales touch on not-so-kid-friendly topics, such as cannibalism, murder, and necrophilia, landing it on various banned book lists throughout the years.
André Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro took the nightmare-inducing book series and adapted it to the big screen with a movie of the same name. Can a PG-13-rated film capture the nostalgic nightmares that introduced so many of us to the horror genre?
The film takes place in 1968, giving it a vintage and campy feel that makes it eerier and better suited to the books than it would be if it took place in modern times. The premise of the movie is that a group of high school friends go exploring on Halloween, trespassing into an abandoned haunted house. A girl named Sarah Bellows used to live there, locked away in her bedroom by her family. According to the legend, local kids would come to the house, and Sarah would tell them scary stories through the wall of her bedroom — with a catch. Anyone who heard the stories mysteriously died.
When Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends (Austin Zajur, Gabriel Rush, and Michael Garza) visit the house, they find Sarah’s book of stories, taking it with them and finding that new stories begin to write themselves. Only this time, the stories hit a little too close to home and Stella finds familiar faces of the neighborhood starring in the book, including her own friends.
Just like the original book series, the stories from Sarah Bellows’ book play on the deepest fears of those who read them. As soon as a new story appears, it instantly becomes true, bringing some of the childhood monsters from the Schwartz’ Scary Stories books to life — while killing off people in the process.
The movie gives Schwartz’ series a universe, making it plausible that the individual stories could all happen in one place. The characters are likable but not loveable — I didn’t care too much if they lived or died, but I think that’s because the monsters are the real backbone of the story because they’re who we remember from the books.
The monsters and ghouls are the best part, and fans of the books will love that most of them stay pretty true to Gammell’s original drawings, especially the almost-identical version of the grotesque Pale Lady from “The Dream.” In a video for Fandango, Del Toro said that he wanted “to emulate, with the creatures, the black and white feeling of the illustrations in the book. We knew we wanted them drained of color,” and that was nicely done.
— Fandango (@Fandango) August 5, 2019
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, refresh yourself on “The Big Toe,” “Harold the Scarecrow,” and, of course, the girl with the spiders in her face from “The Red Spot” to get the full effect of the monsters. The Jangly Man is a pretty terrifying mashup of the stories “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” “Aaron Kelly’s Bones,” and “What Do You Come for?”
There are also fun Easter eggs thrown in here and there for fans of the original, such as the macabre song that plays throughout the movie with lyrics from “The Hearse Song,” and a nod to “Sam’s New Pet” when Stella is writing a short story about a pet who turns out to be a sewer rat.
It’s implied at the end that a sequel is coming, which feels unnecessary, but unfortunately, that’s the norm these days. There were some cheap jump scares, and some of the gore and real horror of the books was missing — for example, when Harold the scarecrow skins the farmer’s corpse and dries out the skin in the sun — but the movie did what it could considering its PG-13 rating. If the studio was looking to appeal to a new preteen audience, the movie is right on target; but if they wanted to make the original fans happy, they needed to up the ante with more gore and more ghouls.
Photos: CBS Films