Film Review: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’

How did they turn the fabled '80s horror-story collection into a movie? By recreating its greatest hits, minus the creepiness that made them great.

Director:
André Øvredal
With:
Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Kathleen Pollard, Marie Ward.
Release Date:
Aug 9, 2019

Official Site: https://www.scarystoriestotellinthedark.com/

If you were a kid growing up in the ’80s or ’90s and you read Alvin Schwartz’ 1981 spook-tale collection “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (or its two sequels, published in 1984 and 1991), you may have felt like the stories added up to your own private “Twilight Zone,” to be consumed with a flashlight under the covers. They had a subversive wonderstruck creepiness intertwined with a weirdly comforting morality. Of course, much of the impact came from Stephen Gammell’s drawings, which were jaw-droppingly horrific for the illustrations in a book aimed at children. His melty black-and-white images of skeletons and corpses and rats and scarecrows and wounded bodies were at once fleshy and ghostly, like dreams with a quality of decay. You could call his style pop-art Francis Bacon, but it also owed something to the children’s-book illustrator Garth Williams (of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” fame). His drawings were over-the-top EC Comics visions given an elegant Victorian timelessness.

The drawings, like the stories themselves, were extreme enough to provoke some of the reflexive repression that the original horror comics did back in the ’50s. Parents periodically tried to get the “Scary Stories” volumes tossed out of school libraries. (This was the ’80s, the age of “Footloose” and Tipper Gore; regulating, and even banning, popular culture was back in vogue.)

But it’s doubtful that there will be a comparable controversy over the film version of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Produced by (among others) Guillermo del Toro, and directed by the Norwegian art-monster maverick André Øvredal (“Trollhunter”), the movie faithfully re-creates the peak moments of half a dozen of Schwartz’ most popular stories, weaving them together — or maybe we should just say Scotch-taping them — into a patchy narrative set in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1968.

If you want to know what it looks like when the heroine of “The Red Spot” watches a nest of spiders erupt out of the oversize pimple on her cheek, or when the young sap of “Harold” finds himself turning into a scarecrow, with straw shooting out of his mouth, body, and limbs, “Scary Stories” literalizes those moments quite handily. Yet there’s no aura to them; the emotions of the stories have been lost. We could be watching the standard ghoulish CGI effects that take place in any horror movie of the week.

The original tales in “Scary Stories” had an insidious, pre-media homespun awe. In the film version of “Scary Stories,” they’re just momentary Grand Guignol tidbits — literally, in the case of “The Big Toe” — served up like the greatest hits they are.

That may be enough to satisfy the series’ multiple generations of fans. (It never seemed to bother the masses of “Harry Potter” readers that the film adaptations lacked the books’ magical screwpot Dickensian atmosphere.) Yet if you watch “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” simply as the movie it is, what you’ll experience is a period teenage horror film at once wide-eyed and scattershot, one that never begins to sustain a mood, and that projects, a bit too callowly, its eagerness to cash in on the demo of “It” and “Stranger Things.” If the movie had simply been a collection of short tales, it might have been effective (though omnibus films are notoriously difficult to bring off, or to turn into hits). In attempting to meld the stories together and give them some sketchy coherence, the movie basically becomes an extended framing device that’s larger than any of the stories in it.

The action now pivots around Stella (the avidly captivating Zoe Colletti), a brainy high schooler who goes out on Halloween with her nerd friends and drops by a drive-in movie theater that’s playing “Night of the Living Dead” (the film opened on Oct. 1, 1968, making their casual familiarity with it possible, if none too plausible). She then leads them over to the local haunted house, which was once occupied by the Bellows clan, whose daughter, Sarah Bellows, is presented as one of those Gothic sacrificial-lamb waif-demon girls whose abuse gave rise to the horror we’re now watching. In this case, that takes the form of a dusty book of horror stories, literally written in blood (though with very elegant script), that Stella steals from the mansion. As she opens the book’s pages, she sees that Sarah’s stories are literally writing themselves.

You’d think, in a movie adaptation of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” that the first thing the filmmakers would want to do is re-create the squishy spectral look and aura of Stephen Gammell’s drawings. But just as the book series was re-issued, 30 years later, with a more conventional set of illustrations (to great protest — the publisher than realized its mistake and went back to the originals), the movie doesn’t totally embrace the Gammell vision. It’s true to it, in a token way, with a grinning disembodied corpse that comes together in too hyperkinetic a fashion. But the only sequence that truly creeps is the one where Stella’s testy friend Chuck (Austin Zajur) stands in a red-drenched hospital corridor and confronts, from every angle, a pale rotund ghoul with a peeled face — it’s like he’s seeing the Ghost of Jacob Marley crossed with the bathtub crone from “The Shining.” For a moment, you shudder. But that’s the only time that “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” puts the night back in nightmare.

RELATED CONTENT:

Film Review: 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark'

Reviewed at AMC 34th Street, New York, Aug. 7, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production: A Lionsgate release of a CBS Films, Entertainment One, 1212 Entertainment, Double Dare You Productions, Sean Daniel Company production. Producers: Guillermo del Toro, Sean Daniel, Jason F. Brown, J. Miles Dale, Elizabeth Grave. Executive producers: Roberto Grande, Joshua Long.

Crew: Director: André Øvredal. Screenplay: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman. Camera (color, widescreen): Roman Osin. Editor: Patrick Larsgaard. Music: Marco Beltrami, Anna Drubich.

With: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Kathleen Pollard, Marie Ward.

More Film

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

  • Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches

    Film New Roundup: Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches North American Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Queen’s Corgi” finds a home, the Overlook Film Festival is postponed and the California Film Commission adjusts its tax credit rules due to the coronavirus. ACQUISITION Freestyle Digital Media has acquired North American rights to the animated family comedy feature “The Queen’s Corgi,” and plans to make it available on DVD and to [...]

  • APA Logo

    APA Sets Salary Cuts and Furloughs in Wake of Covid-19 Pandemic

    Following in the steps of several agencies dealing with the coronavirus, APA has informed all offices of upcoming salary cuts along with possible suspensions and furloughs for employees due to the pandemic’s economic effect on the industry. APA board of directors will make the largest financial sacrifice. The move has been made to avoid layoffs [...]

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    DGA, SAG-AFTRA, WGA Scramble to Keep Residuals Flowing During Coronavirus Pandemic

    Hollywood’s creative guilds have been working overtime to keep residual checks going out to members during the coronavirus crisis. Even though most of the staff members of the Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America West have been working remotely, the guilds have stepped up efforts to maintain the flow of [...]

  • Hannah Marks, Dylan Sprouse. Hannah Marks,

    How a Bart Simpson T-Shirt Delayed Dylan Sprouse’s Movie ‘Banana Split’

    Long before the release of “Booksmart,” actress Hannah Marks set out to make a movie that would be the female bookend to “Superbad.” She started writing the script eight years ago, at 18, based on a real-life story about how, in high school, she befriended the girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend. Many drafts followed for “Banana [...]

  • Ryan Reynolds'6 Underground' film premiere, Arrivals,

    Ryan Reynolds in Talks to Star in 'Dragon's Lair' Film Adaptation for Netflix

    Ryan Reynolds is in talks to star in and produce a live-action feature adaptation of the ’80s arcade game “Dragon’s Lair” for Netflix. Roy Lee will produce through his Vertigo Entertainment with Trevor Engelson of Underground Films. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and Jon Pomeroy are also producing. Reynolds will produce through his Maximum Effort production [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content