Nearly forty years after Alvin Schwartz’ beloved book of short horror stories titled Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark terrified a whole generation of curious young readers, Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro helps bring the pages to life on the big screen, in this horror film made for teens.
Directed by: André Øvredal
Written by: Dan & Kevin Hageman, and Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, and Austin Abrams
Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references
Release date: August 9, 2019 (USA)
Run-time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
In the early 1980s, author Alvin Schwartz created a book of short horror stories titled Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that would go on to terrorize a whole generation of curious young readers. Combined with its morbid and ghastly illustrations by artist Stephen Gammell, the book would serve as an introduction to horror for many. Over the next ten years, Schwartz wrote two more books in the Scary Stories series, and now, nearly forty years later, it has finally been adapted into a major motion picture. Produced by Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film constructs a new narrative around several of the iconic short stories from the book series, and brings them to life to haunt the movie’s teenage characters.
In Mill Valley, Pennsylvania in 1968, a group of teenage friends fleeing from a band of bullies hide out in an abandoned haunted house on Halloween night. They know the story of this house well, whose folklore is rooted in the origins of their own small town. It was once owned by the wealthy Bellows Family, who according to urban legend, locked away their own daughter, Sarah Bellows, inside the cellar of their home. Sarah had been accused of killing the town’s children, and so her family kept her hidden away and attempted to erase her from existence, even removing her from their own family portraits. According to legend, Sarah wrote a book of horror stories and would read them aloud through the walls of her room to frighten the local townspeople.
While inside this haunted house, our group of protagonists; Stella (Zoe Colletti), Ramón (Michael Garza), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur), discover the room Sarah had spent her life trapped in. Stella, an amateur horror writer herself, finds the rumored book that was written by Sarah. Upon opening it she sees that a new page is somehow being written in blood right before her very eyes, and it happens to be about the bully that chased them into the house. The next day, they realize that it seems as though the story actually came true, and that the book itself may be haunted. This establishes the basic premise of the film, in which new stories are being written in the book and they appear to be targeting Stella and everyone else that entered the Bellows’ house that night.
It’s an interesting set-up that cleverly mixes horror with mystery, as the characters are not only trying to survive these stories as they come to life, but are also trying to figure out how to stop them from happening. The film features five different stories from the series, most of which come from the third and final book, and a sixth story centered around Stella and Sarah Bellows that is at least in part inspired by one of the original tales. To give an example without giving too much away, one story for instance, involves a haunted scarecrow, whereas another is about a walking corpse in search of its severed big toe. The stories themselves are much more dark and grotesque than I had anticipated. I was expecting something more along the lines of Goosebumps, which was a series of children’s horror books that I personally loved and grew up with as a child, but these are much more disturbing than that. While I only found the first story of the film, “Harold”, to actually be scary, I do imagine this movie might be a little too frightening for some teenagers.
I should clarify that I’m not familiar with the original written source material of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and I had truthfully never even heard of the books prior to the movie’s announcement. I don’t have any personal stake in these stories, but I do admire the thoughtfulness and creativity that went into building the film around them. I thought the film started out really strong with a likable cast of characters, and with most of its best moments featured early on. I loved the introduction to the haunted house and the legend of the Bellows Family. I enjoyed the playful nature of our group of young protagonists, who in the beginning felt reminiscent of the fun and crazy kids you might find in an 80s movie like The Goonies. Additionally, I liked the mystery of Sarah Bellows that the kids were trying to uncover, all the while struggling to survive the dangers of her haunting stories that had come to life.
Unfortunately, as the movie went on, I found myself less and less invested in it with each passing story, all of which I would argue are weaker than the previous one before it. The Pale Lady storyline was particularly dull and underwhelming. The final act itself, although smartly designed with its use of parallels, wound up feeling poorly executed and unsatisfying overall.
Similarly, in regards to the acting, I liked the performances even less by the end as well. Early on I had been impressed with Zoe Colletti as Stella, but I found her to be annoying in the later parts of the movie. The same goes for Austin Zajur as Chuck. The cast for the most part was decent, but everything about the movie began to drop in quality as it dragged on, which is especially unfortunate given how well it starts out.
The special effects are mostly quite good and adequately disturbing, but on the same token, I wish they were more clearly visible at times. A lot of the horror settings take place in dark rooms, so at times it can be hard to see the monsters with much clarity. Still, I love the design of Harold the Scarecrow, as well as The Jangly Man, who is played by contortionist Troy James whose extreme flexibility allows the character to move in unnatural and disturbing looking ways.
To conclude, I’m left with some mixed feelings on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. For me, it almost hits the mark, but unfortunately it isn’t a movie that I think I’d bother to watch again. It made a solid first impression with its rich atmosphere and creepy first act, but it failed to maintain its momentum and level of quality. In the end, my favorite thing about the whole movie is actually the excellent cover song of “Season of the Witch” by Lana Del Rey that plays during the credits. However that’s not in any way to say the movie is so bad that the credits were my favorite part. It’s just a great song by an artist I very much enjoy. If you grew up with the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, then by all means, I recommend that you at least check it out. If you like horror and have any troublesome teenaged kids, this may be a perfect opportunity to have some fun scaring the heck out of them.
5 Minute Movie Guy