Review: 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark'
Updated: Jan 21
To preface this review, let me just tell you I had high hopes for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I have fond memories from childhood of being at slumber parties with friends, sitting in a circle, holding a flashlight, and taking turns reading scary stories from the Alvin Schwartz book, literally in the dark.
The Stephen Gammell images - which were removed in re-releases for being too scary - were haunting. So haunting, in fact, that when I recorded a recent episode of my podcast, High Crime, two of my friends recalled the terrifying visage of the woman from a story called “The Haunted House,” nearly 20 years later.
Any time Hollywood takes on a beloved story from childhood, it’s hard not to become a little nervous that they’re going to ruin it. (Looking at you, The Golden Compass). But I’m here to say - they did Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark right.
It’s not exactly surprising, seeing as Guillermo del Toro wrote the screenplay and acted as a producer for the film. The man knows how to make a good monster. And lucky me, del Toro even stopped by the screening, along with director André Øvredal, to introduce the film.
He called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a “gateway movie” for those who are not quite horror buffs, “like us.” And, he noted, laughing and gesturing to director Øvredal, “It’s creepy, because Norwegians are creepy.” Øvredal kept it short and sweet, saying that he hoped everyone saw the film as a “horror movie that has a heart and a sense of fun.” And I believe it did.
Now, let’s get into the story. It takes place in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania in 1968. The protagonist is a shy, aspiring writer named Stella (Zoe Margaret Colleti), who has a flair for the macabre. On Halloween, she and her friends - nerd, Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and goofball Chuck (Austin Zajur) - invited town newcomer Ramón (Michael Garza) to check out a local haunted house.
Not haunted house in the theme park attraction, clowns holding chainsaws, Universal Studios way - but an old, abandoned house that had its own local legend. See, the once beautiful manor was home to the Bellows family, who started the paper mill that brought the town to life, and filled their pockets with money.
But the family had a nasty secret: their unwanted daughter Sarah. Rumor had it that there was something wrong with Sarah, something that made the family want to keep her hidden in the basement where no one would ever lay eyes on her. But, as they say, curiosity kills - and so the children of the town would come to the house to hear Sarah tell scary stories through the wall… and then they would never be heard from again. * Spoiler alert ahead *
But those were just stories, right? I mean, how could Sarah have killed anyone when she was trapped behind those walls? The group was about to find out, because, in their exploration of the house, Stella and Ramón stumbled upon Sarah’s old bedroom, and her book of stories. Auggie and Chuck - who was so spot-on as the smart aleck sidekick that if this had been filmed in the 80s, he would have been played by Corey Feldman - warned Stella not to touch the book, but it was all for naught.
Not only did Stella touch the book, but she opened it, ran her fingers along the pages, and as if summoning her by some unknown spell, softly spoke the words, “Sarah Bellows, tell me a story.” In a move very reminiscent of Labyrinth, the words held more power than Stella realized. The book came to life and brought Sarah’s evil spirit with it. It wouldn’t be long before children would start disappearing as their stories were scrawled on the old tome’s pages in blood.
This movie was a lot darker than I thought it’d be. For some reason, I didn’t imagine anyone would actually die, since it was being marketed as sort of a “kid’s movie.” But I was wrong. Town delinquent Tommy goes down in spectacular fashion, with a pitchfork to the gut that turned him, gasping and gagging, into his own grotesque scarecrow.
And there were some real jump scares. I found myself hesitantly averting my eyes here and there, bracing for the moment of terror, while I noticed the woman in the seat next to me jumped at least three times. Of course, as a bit of an arachnophobic myself, I found “The Red Spot” to be the most horrific part of the film. Watching the one twitching leg poke out of pore Ruth’s (Natalie Ganzhorn) face was not only painful, but a little traumatizing, too, as I inadvertently spent the rest of the movie swiping imaginary spiders off of my legs and arms.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one to get the Scary Stories treatment. Tapping into everyone’s childhood fear of a bogeyman under the bed, Auggie got dragged away, leaving cringe-inducing scratch marks along the floor.
And Chuck, well, Chuck’s disappearance was troubling. He was captured by the “pale lady,” an impeccable recreation of the haunting Stephen Gammell image from the book’s tale, “The Dream.” This strange and unsettling monster seemingly hugged Chuck to death, pulling him into her grotesque form until he disappeared.
But by far, the most generally scary monster, reminiscent of something you’d see in typical horror fare, was “the Jangly man.” Now, having just re-read all three of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, I can tell you that there is no story dedicated to him. He appears to be a combination of “What Do You Come For?” - which is about a lonely, old woman whose wish for some company was nefariously answered in the form of rotted body parts falling down her chimney and putting themselves together to form a “great, gangling man” who danced about her living room - and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!”
It’s interesting, because that was always one of my least favorite stories, because it’s completely nonsensical, with a disembodied head yelling gibberish at a scared, young boy for no apparent reason. But in this iteration, it definitely has the capacity to haunt your nightmares.
This might be a strange thing to notice, but the font in the Sarah Bellow’s book was perfect. An eerily beautiful script, it was still legible enough to creep you out on those close-up shots of the pages.
Sarah’s favorite song was “The Hearse Song,” a ghostly number with lyrics like, “Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by / For you may be the next one to die… The worms crawl in / the worms crawl out / The worms play pinochle on your snout.” It played throughout the movie, but especially when something bad was about to happen. It’s amazingly unsettling, like a dark lullaby.
Much like The Ring, and other such horror films, there’s a dark story behind Sarah’s madness. But I won’t spoil it for you, as it’s almost certainly not what you’re expecting.
But Sarah was not the only weaver of tales in this flick, as there was an offhand comment about one of Stella’s works, which involved a boy named Sam, whose new dog turned out to be sewer rat - not unlike, “Sam’s New Pet,” from the third installment of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Then again, Stella is just another “lonely girl who’s good at telling scary stories.”
Though the setting is the late 60s, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark gave me all the 90s nostalgia vibes, conjuring memories of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? marathons. And, it doesn’t end there. Guillermo del Toro himself said he’d be happy to make all three films, and the conclusion of this movie definitely set up a sequel.
As Stella, her father (Dean Norris), and Ruth drove off, the former repeated the phrase from the beginning, “Stories hurt. Stories heal,” before promising to never stop looking for her missing friends, Chuck and Auggie.
Time will tell which stories del Toro and Øvredal choose to bring to life next - if any. But I do know one thing: if they’re anything like what I just saw on the big screen, I’ll surely be there to watch.
Originally published on Creepy Kingdom.