Growing up in the 90s scary stories were all the rage. There was nothing like roasting marshmallows and making smores while my friends and relatives and I tried to spook each other to the point of being unable to sleep at night. Television shows like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Goosebumps” scared the heck out of us by taking the concept of scary stories to a new level. When I heard that the famous children’s book series from the 80s and 90s, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, which actually featured many urban legends and campfire tales I grew up with, was going to become a movie and that that Guillermo del Toro and “Trollhunter” director André Øvredal would be involved I was hooked immediately. The idea of these two trying to capture the stories that gave us nightmares intrigued me and made “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” one of the most anticipated horror features on my calendar. So, how well does this film adapt its source material to feed off the tales that gave us nightmares in our youth? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” or “Scary Stories” for short focuses on a group of young friends Stella (Zoe Colleti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) growing up in 1968 in a town called Mill Valley. The trio plays a Halloween prank on Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) and her bully boyfriend Tommy (Austin Abrams). While trying to escape Tommy, the trio of friends meet drifter Ramon (Michael Garza) and hide in the legendarily haunted home of the Bellows family. While there, Stella comes across the book of famed scary stories that the Bellows’ daughter Sarah Bellows once told to kids who wandered onto the property. However, Stella and her friends soon realize that by reading the book they have awakened the spirit of Bellows who begins writing new stories focusing on each of the friends bringing dangerous and unrelenting monsters to life. One by one Tommy, Ruth, Stella, Auggie, Ramon and Chuck experience their own stories as they try to solve the mystery of Sarah’s vengeful ways and end the horror before they become the latest missing children of Mill Valley.
“Scary Stories” for me was a heck of a lot of fun. With a PG-13 rating, there was always a question of how well this film would be able to balance the horror elements of its stories while also keeping a kid-friendly flare because this is based on a children’s series after all. Thankfully del Toro and Øvredal seem to have been given the proper creative freedom to bring this film to life because while “Scary Stories” does hold back on some of the violence and bloodshed you’d expect from a full-on horror piece, it’s also relentlessly creepy and captures almost everything that made experiencing scary stories in our childhoods so much fun. What it lacks in blood and gore it makes up for it with legitimately unsettling imagery and perfect scene pacing as each scary story comes to literal life. Del Toro’s fingerprints are all over the character designs in this film providing us with some creative, memorable and entertaining movie monsters from The Jangly Man to Harold the scarecrow and my personal favorite The Pale Lady all directly inspired by characters in Alvin Schwartz famous series that inspired the film. “Scary Stories” to me felt like the old “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” episodes I watched as a kid, only much more frightening. Del Toro and Øvredal have created a film that perfectly captures what makes scary stories so nightmare-inducing while also keeping it light enough where it serves as a perfect family-friendly introduction to what this genre is all about.
One of the most impressive aspects of this movie for me is how well it captures what makes scary stories in general so fascinating to us. Campfire stories and scary stories, in general, are best when they have a certain believability or moral core to them. Many of them are there to warn us away from vices or dangers in the world by forcibly creating a fight or flight reaction before the danger is even relevant to our lives. “Scary Stories” works the same way. Each tale that comes to life can be seen as a metaphor for something deeper. One obvious example is “The Red Spot” which features Chuck’s sister Ruth dealing with a nasty pimple-like growth on her face. I won’t spoil what this turns out to be, but the story is clearly a warning of the dangers of vanity. Another story, “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker”, directly involves Ramon’s fears involving his brother’s fate from war. Each story has some personal connection to the characters and not all of them are as obvious as you’d think which gives “Scary Stories” a fun mix of complexity and entertainment and allows you to view it two different ways, as simply the stuff of nightmares or as a representation of what makes these nightmares so frightening even when we know they’re not real. Even the overall narrative is a warning about the misconceptions that these stories can spread as it’s lies and deceit that prove to be the key to Sarah Bellows’ horrifying haunting. In an age where media is constantly under attack and scrutinized while “Fake News” has become a legitimate term, seeking the truth and the consequences of lies feel like perfect morals for this modern collection of scary stories to build off of.
“Scary Stories” has more than its fair share of frightening moments and uncomfortable scenes that had me on the edge of my seat for most of the run time. It really is a spooky horror experience and one of the best of the year so far. But I just couldn’t help but realize how familiar some of it can be. You quickly come to realize the formula that del Toro and Øvredal wanted to embrace and much of the setup and even the characters and framing of the story do feel too obviously like homages to past films and genre pieces. On one hand, this is a neat way for the filmmakers to recognize what makes scary MOVIES as well as scary stories fun, but I do wish they would have blended these ideas into the story a little better. It’s a minor complaint and one that never ruins the movie because the rest of the product is just so much fun, but it’s a complaint, nonetheless. Probably the biggest complaint I have really is with the CGI and visual effects. A lot of it is actually pretty good, but The Jangly Man was just downright ugly not just in appearance but in how he was rendered onto the screen. He’s the one character that feels out of because of how fake he looks and that’s partially because of the film’s dependence on more convincing or practical effects for most fo the other monsters and scares. With that said, “Scary Stories” does more than enough to make up for any of its flaws by creating a fun atmosphere, a simple but effective script with relatable characters, and utilizing a touch of cliché nostalgia that makes it a thrilling homage to scary stories of old.
For years I’ve waited for a film that could capture the charm that these scary stories brought to my delightfully traumatized childhood and while we’ve had films that have tried and only barely succeeded on that front like the “Goosebump” movies, it’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” that finally finds a perfect balance between what makes horror so fun and what makes scary stories so fascinating. If you’re going to introduce a young movie fan to what horror is really about, this is the ultimate feature to get them started. Filled with memorable and unsettling creatures, some deep but not overbearing themes, and fun pacing that makes each story feel like its own while also being part of a genuinely entertaining whole, “Scary Stories” is the complete package. I might be giving it more credit than it really deserves here but for me, this is an expertly crafted horror experience that knows exactly what it wants to be and owns it in every way, perfectly balancing family-friendly thrills with effective and memorable frights like few before it have ever been able to accomplish so smoothly. Simply put, this is one scary story I can’t wait to experience again and again.