The '90s gave us an abundance of great horror stories, especially those aimed towards kids. Shows like Goosebumps and the animated Tales from the Cryptkeeper to children's literature like Alvin Schwartz's series of short horror stories Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark helped create a new generation of horror fans by not being afraid to explore dark, heavy topics like death. After Goosebumps got a feature film adaptation in 2015, it was about time we got a live-action adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, especially one this good.
The cast of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is mostly made up of archetypes. You've got the joker who isn't interested in any kind of reading (Austin Zajur), the intellectual guy who doesn't believe in curses (Gabriel Rush), the outsider fleeing from a mysterious past who becomes friends with the protagonists due to being at the wrong place at the wrong time (Michael Garza), and the idealist creative kid who feels stuck in their hometown (Zoe Margaret Colletti). They live in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1968, where they find a haunted book with stories that write themselves on Halloween night. They have to find a way to uncover the secrets of the book, and by extension their town, while dreading the terrible monsters that are coming for those whose names are written in the tome.
What follows is a fun and spooky horror movie, though be warned that this is still aimed at kids. Those who grew up with the books may enjoy seeing their nightmares being brought to life, and those who aren't familiar with Alvin Schwartz's work will still enjoy the gnarly creature work and the fun scares, but don't go in expecting lots of gore or the kinds of scares in something like the R-rated The Conjuring.
While most of the performances are nothing to write home about, Zoe Margaret Colletti gives the movie's the standout performance as Stella. Colletti captures the feeling of being an outsider and shutting your passions deep down for the sake of fitting in, while carrying the weight of a family tragedy. Though we don't hear about it for most of the movie, her facial expressions tell you all you need to know about what Stella's been through. She wants to be a horror writer, reads Famous Monsters magazine, and her room is covered in horror movie posters of the time. The power of story is the heart of the film, as is the horrible fear of not being able to tell your own story. The script pays homage to those who grew up loving horror and those who always wanted to tell their own stories.
Scary Stories continues the genre's long-time tradition of using horror to comment on the real world, using the genre’s tropes as a way to “mask” the social commentary in a more entertaining way than a straight lecture and turn our very real fears and villains into heinous creatures. In this case, the ‘60s setting serves as a perfect reflection of today's political turmoil and cultural fears. Nixon's presidential campaign from 1968 is often heard on the radio and seen on television in the background, and news about Vietnam is discussed by characters who are afraid of their kids dying for no reason. It helps contextualize the world of the movie through today’s lens by using a haunted book and fictional monsters as a way to portray the real fears we have today and the figures at the center of those fears. What better way to make a horror movie seem real than by reminding you of the real world? Night of the Living Dead did it, Get Out did it, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark wants to do it too.
When the kids are not being haunted or killed off by the magically-written stories, they look into the mysterious life of the book's former owner: the reclusive Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). This means you might have to wait a bit too long before the next monster appears. Luckily, the story connecting the monsters is intriguing enough to make the wait worth it. This being a Guillermo del Toro-produced movie, you can expect a backstory that's deeper and more complex than you'd first imagined, both scaring you and also making you feel for even the most despicable monster with a few tragic twists and turns.
Of course, what you really want to know is whether the creepy illustrations by Stephen Gammell are done justice by the movie. The answer is a resounding yes. Not only are the short stories brought to life with care, but everyone's favorite nightmare-fueling terrors are back: Harold, the Pale Lady, the monster of the Big Toe story, and even some surprises. Done mostly with practical effects and some CGI flourishes, the monsters look fantastic and are sure to terrify a whole new generation, while also bringing to mind memories of going to the library and being spooked by Gammell's grim illustrations in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Big Toe monster and the Pale Lady are especially horrifying, and even the movie's new monster The Jangly Man (a composite of a few illustrations) feels like it always belonged in these stories. They're played by Mark Steger (Stranger Things), Troy James (Channel Zero) and horror legend Javier Botet (REC, The Conjuring 2). Even without the monsters, the movie has some upsetting imagery that feels taken straight out of the original illustrations, particularly the spiders. Fans of the books should also keep an eye out for the many references to the original short stories, with several visual cues or namedrops that will put a smile on many a fan's face.
Director André Øvredal made an outstanding impression with Trollhunter and his excellent English-speaking debut, The Autopsy of Jane Doe. If Scary Stories is any indication, he has a long horror career ahead of him. His eye for framing is exquisite, and his camera floats ominously among the characters like a spectre watching their every move. The movie's gnarly makeup effects will also scare the living hell out of pre-teens the way the books scared adults during their childhoods a few decades ago.
Rest assured, this isn't another botched adaptation of a children's horror story like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark manages to bring Schwartz's seminal short story collection to life in terrifying detail, giving fans a fun thrill ride while also serving as a great gateway horror movie for kids to get terrified and then hooked for life to the genre.