Although Alvin Schwartz’s 1980s horror anthologies came out at a time when I was maybe slightly older than its target readership, I was already full-on into horror movies and forgetting how freaked out I was by summer camp stories of “Gregory,” a homicidal madman who would show up during the blood moon of August. Schwartz’s Scary Stories books collected such urban legends and campfire stories, and the film adaptation directed by Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal (Trollhunter) and produced by Guillermo del Toro, does a fine job recreating those feelings of unease when you’re not sure what to believe.
Set in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, the story begins on Halloween 1968, as young Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her best friends Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) plan their revenge on unrepentant local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). Tommy and his jock friends chase the kids into a drive-in theater (playing Night of the Living Dead, no less!) where they meet Ramón (Michael Garza) and drag him into their mess.
The group ends up at a local haunted house where Stella tells her friends the story of Sarah Bellows, who was locked in the basement by her parents until she finally killed herself… but not before writing all sorts of stories to scare the local kids. They find a book in which more of these stories begin writing themselves with deadly implications for those named in the stories.
There’s a lot to like about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but the decision to set the movie in the late ‘60s and maintain that illusion by tying it into history, is one of the more interesting ones, allowing the filmmakers to superimpose the early days of the Vietnam War and the election of Nixon into the story in a non-intrusive way.
Even though Scary Stories, for all intents and purposes, can be considered an anthology, it’s not Creepshow, and that’s actually more of a positive than a negative. Instead of just telling a bunch of disjointed stories where the only link is gory content, the filmmakers spend the time getting you to care about these kids, and they have a fine young cast portraying them.
Zoe Colletti is particularly good as Stella, a nerdy horror-obsessed young woman who doesn’t completely soften up when she gets slightly doey-eyed for Ramon. It’s particularly nice to see a young girl leading a horror movie like this without the movie feeling it needs to make such a big deal about it. It is somewhat odder that even the kids you generally like are very likely to get killed by the creatures from Sarah’s stories.
Fans of the books will probably thrill to seeing the likes of “Harold” and “The Big Toe” and “The Red Spot” brought to life, although these aspects of the overall movie are relatively minor, since it’s more about the overall story of the kids trying to find out the secret of how to stop Bellows’ killing spree.
The creature design is some of the absolute best I’ve seen in very many years — as are the performers inside the costumes — clearly going old school in capturing the nature of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations from the books. It’s a combination of practical make-up effects and performances not unlike what we’ve seen in some of del Toro’s films like Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s also a nice change from the CG trolls in Øvredal’s debut Trollhunters.
What’s also nice about Scary Stories is that you needn’t worry too much about younger kids (say 9 or 10 years old) wanting to see it, making it an even better entry point into the horror genre than say the Goosebumps movies, which needlessly waters down the horror. Scary Stories certainly earns its monicker, but it’s eerie and spooky rather than gory or bloody, and when you think back to some of the classic horror movies like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, etc., they were all able to excite
The movie also delivers a fantastic third act pay-off with the appearance of the Jangly Man — I’m not sure why his story is called “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” and the movie makes no effort to explain. Still, it’s an exciting way to end the movie and wrap-up Sarah Bellows’ story that works far more effectively than similar horror films.
In many ways, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the perfect throwback to old school horror and the nostalgia of sitting around a campfire and telling stories to freak each other out.