Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Review
Published in 1981, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books written by Alvin Schwartz traumatised a generation of readers. A mixture of urban legends, American folklore, and a few creepy poems, they, and more specifically the charcoal and ink illustrations by Stephen Gammell, became a landmark in horror for many. Now Trollhunter and Autopsy of Jane Doe director André Øvredal along with producer Guilermo del Toro bring the scares to a whole new audience.
Halloween 1968. Aspiring writer Stella (Zoe Colletti) along with her friends Chuck (Austen Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) run amuck of local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). In their efforts to get away they are aided by drifter Ramone (Michael Garza). Together the group go to a haunted house of local legend and find a book of scary stories, but the book starts to write new stories all by itself, stories that bring the groups’ nightmares to life.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is one of the best examples of Gateway Horror in recent memory. It’s the kind of thing I would have loved to watch around 12-15 and that would be good for kids as a stepping stone into the horror genre who have seen the likes of Goosebumps and ParaNorman, but maybe aren’t quite ready for Martyrs just yet. It has that campfire story feel with a checklist of all the best spooky story elements. Halloween? Check. Spooky house? Check. Artefact of doom that won’t be destroyed? Check. Research montage to uncover the dark history? Check. Unbelieving adults in authority? Check. And so on and so forth. It’s simple and a little cheesy but satisfying at the same time, at least for the most part.
What is not so cheesy though are the scares. Much like the books that went before it, the movie really pushes it when it comes to the scary imagery. Spiders under the skin, toes in stew, and painful transformations, there is the right amount of body horror to make you squirm and turn your stomach. As for those Stephen Gammell illustrations, they have been horrifically brought to life in magnificent practical detail with a lot less CGI than you might think. Javier Botet, no stranger to del Toro connected projects after Mama and Crimson Peak, is present as he should be, and Troy James, the actor who portrays the nightmare-inducing Jangly Man, really can twist like that, although he probably can’t detach his own limbs. Probably. These monsters have walked right off of the page and it feels so much more real and authentic for it. As mentioned the movie is produced by Guillermo del Toro and he also provided the story which you can definitely tell as it has a fair few of his favourite thematic elements, particularly what makes a monster, the monster as the victim, and the way we approach our fears. Speaking of fear, the young cast do a good job, and even in moments where we the audience are not necessarily scared, we believe in their fear.
It has that delightful vibe of retro horror which is so popular these days, although was not by any means started by Stranger Things, and the election of Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam make for a interesting thematic background; the children disappearing and being devoured by horrors matches the youth who went to war and never came back. It also means that we get to see Night of the Living Dead being played at the drive-through.
It’s not perfect, alas. As entertaining as the tropey nature of the story is, there are moments where the dialogue veers into ludicrous, and can we just all agree to be done with the “mystical black person” cliché? It’s tired and insulting and it rarely actually adds to the story. Also, not one creepy blind woman but two? Was there a sale on or something? There’s also sequel setup that feels very rushed and comes out of nowhere.
Yet all these things are minor when compared to how much horror-tastic fun Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is. It’s the kind of movie that is easily going to fit into regular rotation for watching every Halloween.