Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark finds a group of teenage friends discovering a book of terrifying tales in an abandoned mansion. The tome has special abilities and preys upon your greatest fears. The book belonged to a woman named Sarah who tragically took her own life years prior to the events depicted in the film. If the friends cannot uncover the mystery behind the book’s power, they will be forced to live out their worst nightmares, perishing at the hands of a vengeful spirit.
When I first heard this project announced, I naturally assumed that it would employ the anthology route, perhaps taking place at a summer camp with children sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. That strategy has worked well in the past (Campfire Tales) but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark took an unexpected approach to the narrative and it pays off in spades.
Guillermo del Toro and Dan and Kevin Hageman’s screenplay (Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton get a ‘story by’ credit) wisely goes in an unexpected direction and incorporates several of the familiar tales from the terrifying children’s book series into a traditional narrative. I love a good anthology but defying expectations and opting for something less expected is to be commended and it definitely paid off here.
I was also pleased by the decision to set the film in a time long before the advent of Internet. Not only does that eliminate the ever present question of ‘why don’t you just use your cell phone to call for help?’ it also gives the protagonists fewer resources at their disposal and makes the book at the center of the action that much more important.
Since the story focuses on the same group of characters for its entire runtime, we get to know the characters and warm up to them, rather than being introduced to a new set of players every thirty minutes. And on that note, I am pleased to report that the key players are all relatable and likable. Zoe Margaret Colletti (Annie 2014) is pitch perfect as main character Stella. Her backstory is compelling and her sense of insecurity and tendency to blame herself for circumstances beyond her control makes her easy to relate to.
Michael Garza (of TV’s Wayward Pines) does a terrific job of portraying a Latinx character in a time (1968) where racism was (arguably) even more prevalent and widespread than it is today. Garza plays Ramon as a compassionate and understanding person, in spite of being faced with hatred and vitriol from people he’s never even met.
While Garza and Colletti were the two standouts for me, the entire cast delivered strong performances across the board. Each character was smartly written and brought to life in a believable and sympathetic way.
Up-and-coming director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has created a visually stunning and terrifying world with his latest effort. Guillermo del Toro’s presence as a producer is noticeable but Øvredal makes the film his own. It is scary, atmospheric, and compelling. The tension is masterful. The scene where Auggie eats the stew from the fridge against the warnings of his friends is absolutely horrifying. Øvredal made me feel like I was right there with Auggie.
Øvredal’s use of a muted color palette is reminiscent of the black-and-white drawings in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books I grew up devouring. And it serves to make things that much creepier.
On the subject of the original illustrations, I am happy to say that the monsters look an awful lot like they jumped off the pages of the original short stories. Much care and attention to detail was put into brining these creatures to life. And that was so great to see. This felt very much like a film that was made for people like myself who grew up daring themselves to turn the next page and find out what horror would befall the characters in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books.
One thing that really impressed me about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is that it contains a poignant message about the evils of treating someone poorly just because they look or act differently than what is perceived as normal. Sarah, the author of the book (within the film) serves as a great example of someone who has been badly damaged by the very people who should have been protecting her. There’s also a message about the importance of forgiveness, in regard to the vindication Sarah is so desperately seeking.
I also dug that the film didn’t have a cookie cutter ending that neatly tied everything up. It left a glimmer of hope and hinted that there may be more scary stories to be told but it didn’t insult or talk down to its audience by waving a magic wand and fixing all of the harm the book (within the film) had done. There is (sometimes) a trend in horror geared toward younger audiences to neatly restore order at the end of the film so everyone can walk away with a smile on their face. But life isn’t like that and one of horror’s most appealing qualities is that it recognizes that the world can be an ugly place and doesn’t try to convince us otherwise.
The effects that were accomplished practically are masterful. But, unfortunately, some of the CG FX are a bit lacking. The spider sequence was quite simply bad. However, the scenes that are a mix of practical and CGI work well, for the most part.
My only other criticism with the film is that it’s a bit formulaic and predictable at times. While I absolutely commend the writers for opting not to tell the stories in anthology format, I did find that some of the decisions made by the core characters and some of the consequences were glaringly obvious and lacking in creativity.
All in all, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a scary, fun, and enjoyable ride that must be experienced.
The film’s home video release boasts great picture and audio quality. It is also stuffed full of featurettes exploring the creation of the film’s monsters and providing insight into the creative process. It is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K, and DigitalHD.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): André Øvredal
Writer(s): Guillermo del Toro, Dan Hageman, and Kevin Hageman
Stars: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Abrams
Release: November 5, 2019 (Home Video)
Studio/ Production Co: CBS Films, LionsGate
Budget: $25,000,000 (estimated)
Length: 1 Hour and 48 Minutes