Like so many 80’s and 90’s kids, my sister and I grew up loving the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. While the short stories written by Alvin Schwartz are mostly variations of standard urban legends and folk tales, the original illustrations by Stephen Gammell are what really haunted us; the black and white nightmare imagery is enough to spook anyone at any age. So when it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would be producing a movie based on the series, I was ecstatic; who better to adapt these iconic books to film than the modern-day master of monster movies? But when I heard it would be a PG-13 teen horror, I deflated a bit. Would the tamer rating diminish the unsettling tone of the books and dull Del Toro’s beautifully-dark style?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark begins on Halloween night in 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town, when a group of teens (Stella, played by Zoe Margaret Colletti; Ramón, played by Michael Garza; Auggie, played by Gabriel Rush; and Chuck, played by Austin Zajur) sneak into an abandoned house rumored to be haunted and find a mysterious old book belonging to the even more mysterious previous tenant, Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). Soon after taking the book, the group is horrified to discover stories about them being written in it by an unseen hand in a suspiciously blood-like ink, and as the stories appear on the pages, they come to life in the real world.
Right away, I have to say the writing is messy. Using the overarching story of the kids finding this haunted book and having to solve Sarah Bellows’s mystery in order to incorporate the stories from the books into the movie leads to convoluted plot points, unrealistic character decisions that are too stupid to even suspend disbelief, and some truly cringe-worthy dialogue (“You don’t read the book-the book reads you” made my sister and me audibly groan). I really wish they had made it into an anthology-style movie so they could have fit in a few more stories from the books; there could have still been some connective tissue tying them together, a la 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat. It would have been a more succinct style of storytelling and felt less like a Goosebumps plot.
Despite the problems I have with the script, I was very pleased with the actual “scary story” bits. They were all excruciatingly and exquisitely suspenseful (“The Big Toe” scene had me clutching my sister’s sleeve and whispering “Oh no oh no oh no”), the creatures were terrifyingly designed in true Del Toro fashion while still retaining the look of Gammell’s illustrations, and they managed to make some stories I thought were pretty silly in the books (specifically “Me Tie Doughty Walker”) genuinely scary.
Acting-wise, the cast did well. Despite the lame jokes they were given, Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur’s line delivery made me laugh out loud a few times, and Zoe Margaret Colletti and Michael Garza had some nice chemistry as Stella and Ramón. I also really enjoyed the score; the eerie melody to The Hearse Song is used effectively throughout the movie, and it sticks with you after you leave the theater.
Despite the story being underwhelming, I’d still recommend checking out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark if you were a fan of the books, just for nostalgia’s sake. It’s a fun enough Halloween movie with some solid jump scares, and it’s probably a good intro to the genre for young, budding horror fans. [SPOILER ALERT – highlight to read] Is it good enough to warrant the sequel-baiting sting at the end? I don’t think so. But if you see it, let me know what you think!
Have you seen Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Well, what did you think?