Published Aug 08, 2019When the announcement came that the André Øvredal and Guillermo del Toro-helmed film adaptation of Alvin Schwartz's classic kid's book series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark would be rated PG-13, the news was greeted with tentative approval and optimism. After all, why shouldn't an adaptation of a book that freaked the hell out of generations of kids be for kids, with enough spooky nostalgia for adults?
But Scary Stories occupies a weird space that feels like it's not really for kids or adults. It lacks is the sense of adventure and fun that comes with, well, scary stories to tell in the dark. It's less an adaptation of the book's urban legends, with their creepy, sing-song dread, than something akin to the 2015 Goosebumps movie — a loosely drawn plot that's just an excuse to narratively interweave franchise IP throughout.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tries even harder to have a meaningful story that's ultimately not very fun or interesting. But when the creatures of the book — based directly on illustrator Stephen Gammell's iconic, freaky drawings — are allowed to take centre stage, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark becomes something special.
On Halloween night in 1968, three teens — aspiring horror writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), likeably dorky Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and wisecracking Chuck (Austin Zajur) play a prank on the school bully — drunk jock Tommy (Austin Abrams). When the prank goes wrong and Tommy retaliates with violence, Auggie, Chuck, and Stella get some unwilling assistance from mysterious loner Ramón (Michael Garza). To escape Tommy — and have a little Halloween fun — the foursome head to the abandoned, reportedly haunted Bellows mansion. Within they find a notebook belonging to Sarah Bellows, rumoured to have been a child-murdering witch. But when the notebook, full of creepy little tales about strange monsters, starts telling its own stories, the writing's on the wall for Stella and her friends.
The legend of Sarah Bellows is pretty thin, which would be fine if the film decided to keep it as a backdrop to the scary stories themselves. The original book was more concerned with the one-two punch of disturbing illustrations and the chilling conclusion of each story. Unfortunately, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark spends a significant chunk of it's nearly two-hour runtime on this mystery. The kids are plucky and likeable enough, but there's nothing fresh or interesting about them, except for an impassioned performance from Colletti, and a vague B-plot about the Vietnam War that seems meant to hammer home the film's theme that people are often punished or feared just for being different. It's an important lesson to teach kids, but it doesn't come up often enough to drive the message home.
The real stars of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are, of course, the infamous monsters from the book, and it's here that the film doesn't disappoint, although there are a few missteps. Particular standouts include dismembered contortionist "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker" and the pale, puffy woman from the story "The Dream," who rely on their grotesque appearance and shambling, inhuman movements to be truly creepy, along with the film's often fantastic use of light and shadow to make it feel as though the monsters are climbing out of a nightmare.
There are a few inventive chase sequences and one truly gross scene involving pimples and spiders, but they never go quite as far or as intense as we want them to, which feels odd for a film ostensibly based on a book that had no qualms about scaring the shit out of kids. It's this confusing tone that permeates the film — it's almost like it wanted to be scarier, but at the last minute, felt it needed to reign itself in and become a teen-friendly paranormal adventure film, complete with a soaring score and poignant opening and closing narration.
Format-wise, the film may have benefitted from being a more straightforward anthology film of shorts based on the stories, which were effective because they were so brutally concise. But when Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark gets the spirit of its source material right, it really nails it.