Kids these days aren’t scared enough. That’s the overwhelming consensus taken from director André Øvredal’s big-screen adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s anthologies of scary children’s stories. Though many argue (mostly parents) that the books themselves were too inappropriate and terrifying for the kids they were aimed at, their controversialness nevertheless prolonged their popularity across the 80s, 90s and even the early 00s. A big part of what made the urban legend-stylings of the short story collections so nightmarish were the now-iconic illustrations from artist Stephen Gammell. The creatures/monsters within the book weren’t your typical nightmare fare, they were ethereal beings trapped within the page and brought to life through inkblots and outstretched screams – impossible to categorise yet real and memorable. When a big screen adaptation, produced by Guillermo Del Toro himself, was announced it was difficult to find any of those old kids who expressed any doubt in the project. However, the difficulties of translating both the monsters and the stories within Schwartz’s work presented a huge challenge; it’s much easier to get away with things within a book than it is a film, yet here we are with a PG-13 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in theatres in the build up to Halloween. It’s difficult to argue with it when a film like this feels so right.
Choosing to alter the anthology structure of the stories in order to remain franchise material, Dan Hagerman and Kevin Hagerman, alongside a story from Del Toro, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, have concocted a wraparound story to contextualise the tales. On Halloween night, 1968 a trio of teenagers (Zoe Colleti’s Stella, Gabriel Rush’s Auggie and Austin Zajur’s Chuck) decide to exact revenge on their school bully. After their plans turn sour, they run into Michael Garza’s drifter Ramon whilst fleeing from an angry jock. With her adoration of the occult and nightmarish, Stella shows them Mill Valley’s haunted house previously home to the Bellows family, who kept their daughter a secret from the world until she died in the house. The old saying goes that you can still hear young Sarah Bellows and request a scary story from her, but that it will haunt you for the rest of your days. Funnily enough the teens find a secret book of Bellows’ stories, supposedly written in the blood of children, and Stella takes it home with her only to realise that the stories are writing themselves and making the kids of the Mill Valley their victims.
It’s a premise ripped straight out of the 80s, and this works to the film’s advantage. Øvredal’s autumnal opening with its crisp oranges and browns makes you pine for the crunchy leaves and forever-sunsets that characterise Halloween as a tradition. The 60s setting, too, grounds the film in the warmth of classic tales such as Ray Bradbury‘s ‘The Halloween Tree’ and the old Goosebumps/Are You Afraid of the Dark? television shows. However, this familiarity also extends to the film’s entire cast of characters. Nearly every one of them performs a perfunctory role in the narrative and is individualised by an archetypal character trait or flaw – Stella wants to become a writer and has a love for monsters, Chuck’s a potty-mouthed class clown whilst his sister Ruthie (Natalie Ganzhorn) is obsessed with her status and her looks. Granted, Stella’s relationships with both her deputy father (Dean Norris) and Ramon are explored in order to cement her title as the protagonist, but a lot of it feels by the book and forced like an after-school special that occasionally diverts into a literal nightmare.
But enough about the overarching plot, it’s time to talk about the stories themselves. The film features four recreations of Schwartz’s work including ‘Harold the Scarecrow’, ‘The Red Spot’, ‘The Pale Lady’ and ‘The Big Toe’. Harold’s appearance is arguably the weakest in the film, his physical presence feels too meaty and ‘normal’ when compared to Gammell’s illustrations. Both ‘The Big Toe’ and ‘The Pale Lady’ are wonderfully recreated with visual flare and tenacity. The Pale Lady in particular transfers perfectly to screen, transforming a psychiatric hospital into a blood-red labyrinthian nightmare as Chuck is slowly trapped by her smiling, calm presence. The Jangly Man – a new creation specifically for the film – also stands out with its blend of practical and visual effects used to create a corpse who rearranges his body parts during the film’s third act face off. The visuals behind the monsters are close translations and are used sparingly, with André Øvredal wisely choosing to keep the fanciful camerawork and point-of-view stylings for those extra special moments. The only disappointing tale within the film seems to be ‘The Red Spot’ which is given barely a minute’s worth of screentime, though will still be able to give hard-suffering arachnophobes something to squeal over.
Whilst it would be easy for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to feature a tonal disconnect between the stories themselves and the overall narrative, the Hagerman brothers deserve praise for the consistency of their screenplay. Whilst at first it seems disappointing how little time is spent with the familiar faces we know, the lingering true fear of oversaturation soon comes into play. Tommy’s disturbing (especially for a PG-13) transformation sequence and the violent movements of the Jangly Man are truly gruesome, pushing the bar for the censorship board in order to have a lasting impact (the film, sadly but unsurprisingly has been slapped with a ‘15’ certificate in the UK). At no point does it feel as if Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is held back, and whilst the majority of the frights take the form of jumpscares, it should be said that even the book featured the very same technique, with instructions on how to make your friends jump when reading the stories themselves out loud. It’s a carnival-like tale of horror that makes crowds scream, like a toned-down version of Andy Muschietti’s It remake.
André Øvredal’s penchant for folk tales and legends harkens back to his work on Trollhunter, and it’s hardly surprising that the handling of Sarah Bellows’ backstory is the strongest aspect of the film’s narrative. Whilst the stories provide the main attraction, Mill Valley’s population represents the growing paranoia surrounding the oncoming Vietnam War, and had this setting been developed further it could have rivalled Schwartz’s imagination for most harrowing segment. As the Bellows backstory is revealed via old psychiatric tapes (that feel like lighter versions of the ones taken from Brad Anderson’s Session 9), the climax unveils the true potential Stella and Ramon’s story could have had. Putting Zoe Colleti’s Stella in Sarah’s history allows the actor to try and break out from the dry performances, and she does so enough to make a worthy impression as the tension builds up to a suitably haunting climax.
Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark feels like a success, a natural progression of children’s horror television shows that has a small handful of moments designed to make the most out of its enthusiastic director and producer. Script problems aside, it’s a film designed to savor the art of storytelling, which on the colder nights is something that can’t be taken for granted. Is it actually scary? That’s debatable. But it’s most likely the best starting point for the future’s horror-obsessed adults who’ll later go on to tell their own scary stories, and that kind of synergy makes the film feel strangely wholesome.