SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
Director: André Øvredal
Studios: Lionsgate, CBS Films, eOne
I said in my trailer review that I’d be in line to see this movie opening weekend, and I kept my promise. I sat in the theater with my nachos and candy, waiting to see if this film would do Alvin Schwartz’s beloved series justice. When the opening credits began and the tune of “The Hearse Song” started to play, I knew I was in for something good.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) straddles the genres of horror and coming of age films, without detracting from either. It has bullies who wear their toxic masculinity like their letterman jackets, the goofy kid with the comic relief, the popular girl, and the pedantic smart kid. All of these characters are rather one-dimensional to prop up the main character, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti, Wildlife, Annie).
Stella wants to be a writer. The typical premise for coming of age movies, but her genre of preference is scary stories, which is what begins to draw in the horror aspects. When Stella and her friends, goofy Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight, Delinquent) and smart Augie (Gabriel Rush, Better Call Saul, Little Boxes), meet Ramón (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1) on Halloween night, the group decide to check out the local haunted house. You know, as you do. While exploring and laying out some exposition about the homeowners — wealthy paper mill magnates — they discover a part of the house that no other trespassing teens have ever found before. The basement room where the family had imprisoned their daughter.
The local legend follows that the daughter, Sarah Bellows, used to tell the local children scary stories through the wall of her basement prison. That is, until she inexplicably poisoned them. While wandering through Sarah’s sad, spartan digs, Stella seems drawn to a shelf of books, like one of the teens in Cabin in the Woods (2011), destined to unleash the unknown. Of course, she takes the book home and sets in motion events that will have horrifying consequences.
This premise allowed the various short stories of Schwartz’s series to be woven seamlessly together into a single horror story. The screenwriters chose six stories from the source material to feature in the movie. “Harold” has been widely displayed in the trailer and other marketing, which is about a scarecrow that takes revenge. “The Big Toe,” about a corpse looking for, well, you can figure it out. “The Dream,” about an ominous room and a very scary Pale Lady. “The Red Spot,” which will make you look twice at pimples and spiders. “Me-Tie-Dough-Ty-Walker,” about a dog and a chimney and what comes down it. “The Haunted House” sets up the overarching plot of the whole movie. Of course, a fair amount of liberties are taken with each story to make it fit into the framework of the movie. However, the underlying scariness of each story is maintained.
One of the things I love about this movie is the details. Sarah Bellows’s book isn’t just any notebook. It’s written in a ledger book. The only thing that the ostracized daughter of a 19th-century industrialist would have been able to access. In movies now, many two-dimensional images are rendered on the big screen with mixed success (I’m looking at you, Sonic the Hedgehog). I’m very impressed with the strikingly faithful way that they recreated Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations on the screen.
This movie is a love letter to Schwartz’s books. It’s also to every kid who scared their friends telling ghost stories with a flashlight held under the chin. (I actually got in trouble as a teenager for telling scary stories at summer camp. I scared the younger girls so badly that they refused to go to sleep).
The scare-level is solidly in the PG range. It’s an excellent vehicle to introduce the young cinephile in your life to the wonders of the horror genre. But at the same time, I wouldn’t classify it as too tame. While I didn’t jump at the jump-scares, the jolting of the seats around me told me I was alone in my desensitization. Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth) and André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Troll Hunter) are both absolute masters of atmosphere and suspense. It’s deliciously taut like a violin string, leaving a wholly satisfying experience.
Take the budding horror fan in your life to see this film. You won’t regret it.