Based on the series of children’s novels that have terrified generations (including myself), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a 2019 horror film from director Andre Ovredal. The original trilogy of short stories was written by Alvin Schwartz, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Gammell’s illustrations and Schwartz’s stories come to life in a series of scares that look to haunt a new generation. How well do these stories transition to the big screen?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Synopsis
On Halloween night in 1968 a group of outcast teenagers enact revenge on their school bully. In doing so the trio run into a renegade teen by the name of Ramon. Ramon befriends the only girl in the group, Stella, and she convinces him and her friends to visit an abandoned house with a sinister back story.
The rumor has it that a woman by the name of Sarah Bellows was locked in the house’s basement and would read stories to the children who would visit her. These stories would eventually come true and take the lives of the children who paid her a visit. Stella, a horror writer in her own right, has always been fascinated by these tall tales.
The teens find Bellows book of scary stories and Stella takes the book with her as a souvenir. A mistake Stella and her friends begin to pay for as the short stories begin to take life in their world. Everyone that was in the house that night is soon affected by the curse of Sarah Bellows. Stella and her friends run against a clicking clock in order to save those who become part of the story.
“Let’s make a doll the size of a man.”
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a film that has grown on me since my initial theater-going experience. The film builds atmosphere that I almost instantly fell in love with. Setting a horror film on Halloween is always a plus, and adding the haunted house aspect is a no brainier. This film doesn’t break any new ground, but what it does is create a new childhood classic for kids who love the dark and macabre. Scary Stories will go down as this generations Hocus Pocus. A film that is never too heavy, but has great creatures, set designs, and a spooky atmosphere.
I keep bringing up atmosphere because many horror films in today’s landscape lack that. A film that Scary Stories is compared to is the Goosebumps. What Goosebumps lacked was atmosphere. Sure it has all the characters viewers grew up reading, but it lacked a sense of suspense and dread. Scary Stories has that dread. Characters lose people close to them. Characters die. It’s the harsh reality of life that Scary Stories does not hold back on. If Goosebumps is for pre-teen audiences, then Scary Stories is the next step up.
“This is an evil place. Run away, while you still can.”
Andre Ovredal takes the source material to heart and crafts an engaging story around it. The original stories from Schwartz series are very short, most only a page or two long. Ovredal took on the task of building a 110 minute long film out of these shorts, and to a good affect. The big complaint I have of the film is the run time. Towards the end I could feel that run time creeping up. There are about 10 to 15 minutes that could be left on the cutting room floor to streamline this story.
A few other missteps come in the story and dialogue. One character’s fate in particular is hinted at, and completely retconned in the final few moments. It was a jarring change, and one that was ultimately unnecessary for the story. The dialogue from the character also felt forced at times. Some of the scares are set up early in the film, but these set ups feel completely out of left field. Good scares can be set up early based on character fears, but dropped lines of dialogue are a lazy way of going about this.
“Me Tie Dough Ty Walker”
Overall the cast is solid. Zoe Margaret Colletti is asked to do a lot as the character of Stella. Colletti delivers a very good child performance and is given some heavy material and scenes to work with. Alongside her Michael Garza gives a charming and sympathetic performance as Ramon. Not to give anything away from the story, but his third act character reveal is genuinely heartbreaking and fitting of the film’s time period.
Finally, the best part of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the monsters. Practical effects live! Scary Stories utilizes the combination of practical effects and CGI to it’s fullest. CGI is used to enhance and hide some of the blemishes of the practical effects. Each monster in the film is lifted straight from the pages of Gammell’s original sketches.
The creatures are brought to life by the performances of Javier Botet (Toe Monster), Troy James (Jangly Man), and Mark Steger (Harold the Scarecrow and the Pale Lady). These men full embody these monsters. The physical performance combined with the special effects create monsters that are sure to haunted generations, and my nightmares.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is quickly becoming one of my favorite gateway horror films of the last decade, if not of all time. The combination of effective atmosphere, interesting characters, and top notch creature effects creates for non-stop enjoyment. Horror fans (like myself) will embrace the film for it’s throwback mentality of practical effects, and newer generations of horror fans will without a doubt love the creepy jump scares. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will be a first day purchase of mine when it arrives on Blu-Ray, and that is a phrase I have yet to say about a film I have seen in theaters this year.
Overall Score 4/5