When I was a kid I bought a book that would terrify and delight me for the rest of my life. I was maybe six years old and was given money for the scholastic book fair, something every kid my age looked forward to. With only a few dollars in hand I perused the books and eventually found my way into the higher reading levels where I encountered a book emblazoned with the Words SCARY STORIES to Tell in the Dark. Below the title an image of a desiccated head smoking a pipe grinned at me so, of course, I took the book to the young woman manning the register.
Handing the lady enough money to purchase the book, she stopped and looked at me with a concerned look. “are you sure you are old enough for this book Hon?” the lady asked to which I nodded, desperate to take this frightening tome home with me. “Well, this looks a little scary, wouldn’t you rather have Hank the Cowdog?”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved Hank The Cowdog like any other kid my age but the stories in this book called to me so I answered honestly, ‘No, I want this one.’
Smirking the woman looked me straight in the face, ‘ Fine, if you can read the first page to me, I will let you buy it’.
Determined, I opened the book and, to her surprise, I began to read. “A boy was digging at the edge of the garden when he saw a big toe…”
Needless to say, I took the book home that day and from that moment on I was engrossed in the tales told by Alvin Schwartz with terrifying illustrations by Stephen Grammell. Since that day this book and it’s two sequels went from being my bedtime reading to my inspiration for horror many years later.
A few years back news broke out that one of my favorite horror directors, Guillermo Del Toro had begun development on this iconic book from my youth. Thrilled at the prospect I began to follow it’s production with the hopes this would be everything I could imagine it to be. When the first images released looked to be the physical manifestations of the very art that graced the books of my youth. At that moment, I knew that the great filmmaker had no intention to let me down.
Guillermo does something unique here with Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark. You see, the original books were not novels per say, they were more of an anothology of stories that had no connection except that of Grammell’s wonderfully frightening art. Each tale in the books were meant to be a moment in time and told in a way that made them perfect for campfire stories. Now, Del Toro could have taken the easy route and had them told that way, similar to how the classic Nick series Are You Afraid of the Dark pulls off their tales but instead, Guillermo took the book to a whole other level.
In the universe of Scary Stories, the classic tales from the original book are part of a larger story that surround the grizzly tale of Sarah Bellows. Mistakenly released by a group of misfit kids in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, the ghost of Sarah Bellows works it’s way through the kids involved using her ghastly ghost stories to bring the nightmares within to life. Realizing what is going on, it is up to Stella, a young writer, and Ramon, a kid with a past, to end the terror before they are all consumed by Sarah’s murderous rampage.
One of my biggest concerns going into this film was just how the filmmakers would treat the source material. Now, as I mentioned earlier, the original books did not have much to go on with connective tissue, so, when I discovered the plot of the movie involved bringing these creatures into a single tale, I was understandably nervous. Needless to say, Del Toro and team manages to not only create a great connective tissue that tie many of the classic stories together, they manage to do it in a way that is respectful to the story telling aspect of the original books.
Scary Stories is done as a period piece. Taking place in 1968 at the start of the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon, there is already a tension throughout the town that is undeniable. It is clear that behind the sugary facade of the 60’s there is a deep anger hiding in plain sight. That anger takes manifests not only in the monsters but also in the blatant racism seen in the towns police and bullies. Using this realistic tone as a catalyst, Del Toro manages to stoke the fires of uncertainty with real life monsters well before the ghostly monsters make their appearance.
Once the monster do appear, however, all bets are off and it is up to a group of kids to fend them off before Sarah Bellows finishes her task. Each of the monsters that appear are perfect renditions of the creatures from the book. From the Pale Lady to even Harold, they seem to have literally leapt from Grammell’s original pencils only to manifest themselves in even more gruesome visage. I never dreamed that these frights from my youth could take a physical form outside of my imagination but sure enough, they managed to pull them off to near perfection. My one nitpick here is the segment with the Jangly Man. In what may have been a budgetary constraint, his was the one that came across the most ‘CG’ of every beasty, giving his character the least believability of them all. That being said, he was still rendered magnificently but his slight cartoonish quality took me out of the film for a moment or two. It’s a minor complaint and one that does not mar the film much as a whole. While not every creature from the books get’s time on the screen, fans of the book series will note Easter eggs throughout the film from from stories written by the lead character Stella, to clever musical cues that reference a certain classic tune from the first entry. As the film opened, I found myself grinning from ear to ear with the opening notes reminding me of the proper etiquette when a hearse passes by. Speaking of music, there is also a delightful cover of Donovan’s classic Season Of The Witch sung by Lana Del Rey that does not disappoint.
Every story needs characters and the cast that fill these roles are simply wonderful. Somehow the filmmakers not only were able to cobble together a solid tale with believable monsters, but also pulled together a cast that were instantly convincing. Led by Zoe Margaret Colletti in the role of Stella and Michael Garcia as Ramon, the group of kids come across as a blend of the kids from Stand By Me and Goonies with a touch of Lost Boys for good measure. Rounding out the cast is Gabrial Rush as Auggie, Austin Zajur as Chuck, Natalie Ganzhorn as Ruth, Austin Abrams as Tommy, Kathleen Pollard as the Ghostly Sarah Bellows and a surprising appearance by Dean Norris as Stella’s father Roy. Even with such a sizable cast, each character comes across as fully fleshed out with deeper backstories that we only get a taste of through this tale. This gives the story much more weight than I would have believed creating a genuine location out of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania giving it almost the legitimacy that King’s Castle Rock, Maine has.
Now, the final question you may have is, ‘is this really a ‘scary’ movie? To me, it was more of a fun journey down memory lane bringing one of the most terrifying books of my past to life in a way I never thought possible, but then again, I kind of thrive off of horror so take that with a grain of salt. From the reaction of the audience that was in the theater with me, this film is certainly full of tense and frightening moments, some that will literally have you holding your breath in anticipation. Del Toro and Director Andre Ovredal are careful to maintain a point of high anxiety while allowing the story to flow naturally without too many jump scares. Much like many of Del Toro’s past efforts, the fear is in the tone and story, and rarely done for a cheap thrill.
The Bottom Line
With a terrific cast, solid story and fantastic special effects, Scary Story’s To Tell In The Dark is a delightfully creepy tale that brings to life one of my childhood favorite books. Del Toro and Ovredal do an incredible job with the source material making this a solid film that I look forward to adding to my film collection. I certainly hope enough people go see this film for it to warrant a sequel, ‘More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”. Personally, I look forward to seeing the film interpretations of The Hook and The Babysitter.
If you have the spare time, go see this one in theaters, It is well worth your time.
Late To The Game 8/18/2019
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