Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Review (Film, 2019)
Director André Øvredal broke out in the horror scene almost 10 years ago with Trollhunter. A clever reimagining of monster horror, Trollhunter tells the story of a group of young people researching a series of bear murders in the woods. The truth is far more unbelievable: ancient trolls are real and a genuine deadly threat to any human who spots them. Part ensemble comedy, part effects showcase, Øvredal crafts a monster movie driven by believable characters and suggestive use of special effects to make the giant monsters seem real.
Øvredal followed Trollhunter with The Autopsy of Jane Doe, another inventive entry in an over-saturated horror genre. Without giving too much away, Jane Doe does for medical horror what Trollhunter does for the monster movie. It is, again, a horror film driven by ensemble, honest human emotions, and a very measured approach to suggestion versus showing what’s happening.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the series of horror stories for children written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, is a similar exercise in subtlety. Schwartz’ stories are short but impactful, crafting terrifying images of unnerving horror. The human characters are defined by simple qualities that allow the reader to see themselves in the ill-fated heroes and villains of the ironic horror vignettes. They are, after all, meant for a younger audience.
The stories are made all the more real by Gammell’s illustrations for each story. The expressive, slightly distorted images make even human-driven stories seem weird and unnatural. Gammell exaggerates proportions to make the most crucial details impossible to escape. Ironically enough, when the original collection was rereleased with new illustrations from Lemony Snicket’s illustrator Bret Helquist, the stories lost their punch and were not well received by critics or fans.
In other words, a successful adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has to define a believable world where these subtle sketches of otherworldly horror could exist. The images accompanying stories like “The Dream,” “Harold,” and “The Red Spot” are just as crucial to the storytelling as the stories themselves. It is a perfect balanced collection of illustrated children’s stories.
I am happy to say that André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark works far better than I ever imagined. I had high hopes going in because of Guillermo del Toro; he is very selective in what he gets involved with and it is his screen story that lays out the concept that connects the film. That’s not quite accurate. If we’re speaking technically, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan adapted the stories, which Guillermo del Toro turned into a screen story, which Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman adapted into a screenplay for the film. This is a depth of writing usually saved for animated adaptations, but it’s also an excellent procedure for adaptations, as well. Each of these steps is different, and essentially winnows a very wide field of material (82 short stories in three collections) into something more manageable each step of the way.
The framing story for this narrative-driven anthology is about a young writer named Stella. Stella and her friends Auggie and Chuck are saved from the town bully Tommy by the kindness of Ramón. They wind up at the abandoned mansion of Sarah Bellows, the site of many child disappearances. It is believed that if you ask Sarah to tell you a story, it will be the last story you ever hear. Tommy and his date Ruth catch up with Stella’s friends, leaving all six in the mansion when Stella finds Sarah’s book of scary stories and asks Sarah to read to them. Stories start writing themselves in the book every night, causing the group of young people to face unspeakable horrors and disappear one by one.
This is a narrative device we’ve seen before in anthology horror and it works. The difference in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is that this framing device is the most effective and moving story told the entire time. This isn’t the camp of Burgess Meredith leading tourists through visions of hell in Torture Garden or Angela Lansbury reading cautionary folklore about werewolves to her granddaughter in The Company of Wolves. This is a well constructed horror story about other horror stories coming to life.
There are more layers that make this a surprisingly deep film for a younger audience. The story starts on Halloween night, 1968. You see constant news reports about the Vietnam War and the presidential election coming up in five days. The young men in the town are seen enlisting or showing up at the VA when their draft numbers are called and there’s a sense of loss, suspicion, and fear filling the town. Background characters you see on Halloween night disappear before the end of the story. Their names were not written in Sarah Bellows book; their numbers were called to risk death in battle. The nightly disappearance of one of Sarah’s friends is all the more upsetting because at least the town knows where their young men have gone.
The selection of stories from the collection is twisted just enough from the source material to add a nice sense of irony to the film. Cruelty, arrogance, vanity, obsessions, fleeing responsibility, and gluttony are matched with stories that put the young people face to face with the embodiment of their worst flaws. The characteristics wisely do not define the characters, but become the focus of their character’s living nightmare when Sarah starts writing their story. Even better, this is not a preaching film for children; the message of the film builds upon the interactions between and loss of characters rather than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-ing disconnected stories of bad children getting punished.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark could easily be a hard-R horror film. The endings devised by Alvin Schwartz are not described in graphic detail, though the suggestion of torture, violence, and monsters could fill every frame of the film with blood. Øvredal did not do that. Øvredal focused on developing the relationships between Stella and her friends to create a sense of melancholy and dread. The more time passes, the more you learn about these young people and begin to want the horror to end. Are the real live versions of Gammell’s illustrations disturbing? Yes. Are they used for graphic violence, weaponized against the audience just because they can be? No.
My appreciation and respect for a character-driven anthology horror film for all ages (PG-13, but at the level of Gremlins or Poltergeist) that delivers on scares and a positive, empowering message is hard to express in words alone. This tone and approach to horror are an anomaly in the modern landscape, where more is more and ambiguity rules the day. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a must-see film for the whole family. Unless your family doesn’t do well with scary stories. Then you should venture out alone. This film is terrifying.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is currently playing in theaters.