7 / 10
Zoe Margaret Colletti … Stella Nicholls
Directed by André Øvredal
Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark Review:
Most of us are probably familiar with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the three-volume anthology of tales written for kids by Alvin Schwartz. But what most of us probably remember about the books is not the stories, but the horrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell. If so, you are in for a treat.
The film version of Scary Stories follows Stella and her friends Auggie and Chuck. It starts on Halloween, when the trio play a trick on the town bully, Tommy. Tommy chases them with deadly intent, and they take refuge at a drive-in theater, hiding in the car of Ramon, a Hispanic drifter. An instant attraction between Stella and Ramon causes her to invite him to a “real” haunted house.
The 100+ year old house was owned by the Bellows family, who built a mill that basically built the town. Sarah, the daughter, was the scourge of the family. All images of her were removed, and she was never let out of her basement room. Rumors said she was horribly disfigured. She used to tell scary stories to kids through the wall, until rumors persisted that she was responsible for poisoning area children. It was said that she hanged herself with her own hair.
So Stella and her friends go investigate the house, and are followed by Tommy, who locks them in Sarah’s room. While down there, Stella discovers Sarah’s book of scary stories. A mysterious force unlocks the door and Stella takes the book with her. It soon becomes clear that the book itself is haunted, when Stella discovers a fresh story being written about Tommy… and Tommy disappears. Each time a story is written in the book – right before Stella’s eyes – someone else meets a grim fate.
Scary Stories does a great job blending multiple stories into one film. It would have been easy to make this an anthology, and just retell the stories in the books. But the stories are often only a page or two long, and are not well formed. A lot of them probably wouldn’t even make a satisfying twenty minute short. But in this format, each story amounts to maybe ten minutes, with characters and mythology that have already been established.
The most important part of the film is that Gammell’s drawings were well represented. Fans of the books (or the illustrations) will recognize Harold the scarecrow, or the large woman with the pale face and black eyes from “The Dream.” “The Dream” as a story is not well fleshed out, so screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman did their job, and turned the pale faced woman into an adorable real-life monster.
There is an attempt to add social commentary into the film, but it feels forced. If it were lifted out, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The film is set in 1968 (though the year has no real bearing on the story) with Nixon in the middle of a reelection and young men being sent to fight in Vietnam. This forms a very minor, but ultimately unimportant plot point. Ramon is subjected to harassment for being Hispanic, but ultimately it doesn’t change his fate and other than his car being trashed with racial epithets, which forces him to stay in town another night.
This film feels like a good gateway film into horror for children. Some parents may disagree, but it opens with a group of kids getting ready for their last Halloween. I don’t know why, but the small-town Halloween vibe makes it feel like a lot of the PG and PG-13 horror from the 1980s. The kids are of an unspecified age, but they feel like they are roughly 14 or 15. The supporting characters have a wide range of effectiveness, but Zoe Margaret Colletti is great as Stella, offering a strong, smart female lead who isn’t limited to the “final girl” stereotype.
Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark is yet another in a line of great horror movies this year. It takes multiple stories and weaves them into a fully formed narrative. There are lots of gruesome villains to send chills down your spine. It recognizes the best part of the books: the illustrations. Ultimately, director Andre Ovredal and producer Guillermo del Toro seem to have a lot of love for the books, and made them into an even better film.