Guillermo del Toro who – alongside Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan – conceived the story for this screen adaptation of the beloved spooky children’s books of the same name by Alvin Schwartz, has been eager to get this project seen by an equally youthful audience. Passed as a PG-13 in the US, here in the UK the film has been classified a 15 but this does not harm a film that is mostly quite capable of satisfying older and younger horror fans alike. Less an anthology horror structure and more of a story in the vein of IT, this film has the fingerprints of del Toro clearly visible on it and expresses the dark affection the film’s makers all have for the source material.
The story, set in 1968, sees a group of teens get in a bit of bother with the local bully on Halloween night and flee to the local “haunted” house that once belonged to the founders of the town, the Bellows family. Inside they find a book that belonged to Sarah Bellows, a figure of much dark lore in the town, and soon they find that some stories are more than just myth, as a series of deadly new stories based on each of them begin being added to the book and as they are targeted one by one by various entities, they must find a way to break this supernatural curse before it is too late.
For a younger viewer dipping their toe into horror, this is one hell of an impactful start on the pathway to horror movie fandom (this must’ve terrified young kids stateside!) and, unlike many others that tried (and failed) to have similarly wide-age appeal (and that the BBFC also ironically usually passes as 15 over here) like Slender Man and Ouija, this film does not feel toothless or restrained and instead shares more in common with films like Joe Dante’s The Hole 3D in its dark story, themes and imagery.
Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman’s screenplay doesn’t re-invent the wheel and does handle some things heavy handedly, especially the touches of comedy and odd bits of dialogue, which sometimes are a tad clunky or forced. However, despite the many jump scare tactics, the film soars thanks to its writers intentions of injecting the narrative with themes relevant to its era and our own. The scariest thing in the film, as in life, are the truths (intolerance, war, loss, grief, abuse and persecution) and this film does show us why stories are both a distraction, as well as a result of the truly dark world around us. And what a dark world it is presented before us. Much like Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, the film grounds it all in an emotional core though, which shows the dark side effects of abuse and inhumanity, as well as dealing with loss and grief and, come the climax, things are left both resolved and interestingly open for more scary stories to be told.
That said, the greatest asset to the movie is its aesthetics. As the reliable Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich strike the right tone with their score (Lana Del Rey also covers Donovan’s “Season of the Witch for the credits), some great practical effects and accompanying CGI shock your retinas onscreen. Troll Hunter director André Øvredal takes huge joy in unleashing the ghouls, beasts and monsters and, via the nightmarish character designs, the film does the utmost justice to Stephen Gammell‘s iconic (and arguably more terrifying than the text) illustrations from the book series. In fact it is often remarkable just how close they get to bringing these characters to life, The Pale Lady in particular is astonishingly faithful.
It is admirable how much this film invests in its inspirations, chock full of ‘50s and ‘60s horror homage and atmosphere, this movie re-introduces an era to a fresh audience, while approvingly nodding to the longstanding followers too. To that point, the film is boldly reliant on a cast of largely new young talent and while some handle things better than others, Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza absolutely steal the show. Colletti is emotive and convincing as young aspiring writer Stella, while Garza is utterly brilliant as Ramòn, whose story plays out really well and rather unexpectedly powerfully. Other standout turns are offered by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as Stella’s caring but struggling dad and monster man extraordinaire Javier Botet, who once again brings character to the monster he portrays, alongside fellow group of monster actors Troy James, Andrew Jackson and Mark Steger.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a well crafted spooky tale, with stuff to equally make some adults squirm and some kids have sleepless nights and which could enjoy a future following, much like the books have.