Released: 26th September
Seen: 5th October
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a series of books from 1981 to 1991 written by Alvin Schwartz. There were three books in total, each one filled with almost 30 short stories that terrified an entire generation, not only because the stories themselves were terrifying but the illustrations associated with each story were so infamously scary. They are not only legendary best-sellers but they’re also infamously some of the most banned books in school libraries because of the violence described and the macabre topics like cannibalism (which I just thought was a regular weekend activity, you learn a new thing every day). To shock no one, I didn’t read these books growing up. Firstly, they were big before I was old enough to even be able to say the word “Book” and secondly, I was more of a Goosebumps kid. I did try to hunt down a copy of the books before I went to see the movie but I guess my local library must’ve been one of the ones to ban them and the only copy is the brand new one that is a tie in for this movie and I’m not paying 50 bucks to read some short stories, thankyou very much. This does allow me to answer the question of whether this film works without knowing the source material. The short answer is… kinda?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows a group of teenagers living in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1968, where everything is totally wholesome. Stella (Zoe Colletti) is your typical shy girl with a love of horror who writes short stories and cares for her father when he comes home from his unspecified job. She also only has two friends, just like every kid in one of these movies. Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is your tall awkward kid who is too straight laced to get involved and dresses like a clown for Halloween but is so pretentious that he insists everyone acknowledge he’s actually a Pierrot, a stock character from French pantomime. Lastly Chuck (Austin Zajur) is the prankster friend, the kind who would prepare a flaming bag of his own poop and says wildly inappropriate things for the enjoyment of the people sitting where the fourth wall should be. The three of them are just living their typical life, which includes running from generic bully #1 AKA Tommy (Austin Abrams), when they bump into the mysterious Ramón (Michael Garza). Ramón just popped up in town with a secret that’ll surely have an impact when it’s revealed in the third act. This little gaggle of kids, for reasons of “How the hell else do we make this plot work?” end up going to an abandoned house that used to belong to the Bellows family. The Bellows were bad people who kept their daughter Sarah locked in a basement because she was different and while she was down there she apparently wrote scary stories in child’s blood that she got… somehow. While the main gaggle of kids are exploring this basement, Stella happens upon this book and takes it with her which, naturally, raises the evil spirit of Sarah Bellows who begins to write more scary stories. The problem is, her scary stories all star our main cast of characters and every one of them is coming true.
Credit where it’s due, the stories being told in this movie are definitely scary. You can certainly tell what parts are adaptations of the original short stories and what parts are modern day writers trying desperately to find a way to stitch everything together and when this film works it’s when they’re doing adaptations of the short stories. When the film tries to have an overarching story, that’s when it falters. Part of the charm of short stories is that they are very quick and simple, delivering the full range of emotion in under a few minutes. The problem with shoving those short stories into a larger plot is that it means we have to pause the main story, quickly tell a short story that’s a lot more interesting and then go back to the main plot that nobody cares about.
The main overarching plot, revolving around trying to solve the mystery of “Why does Sarah Bellows want to kill everyone with magical stories?” is just boring and adds nothing other than a framework but… it’s a bad framework. It’s a framework we’ve seen before and it just doesn’t work here. It’s a little hard to care about whatever Ramón’s big secret is when I’ve just seen a toe in some soup. It’s also hard to care about that secret when it adds NOTHING to the story. It’s a weird thing but several of the major additions just end up meaning nothing in the long run. Entire characters like Stella’s father or Louise Baptiste are just there with no reason to exist, even though they are clearly trying to set things up. Stella’s father Roy is apparently a deputy at the police station, but never turns up whenever there are moments of police work in the film. Louise apparently knew the Bellows family and even seemingly knows something about the book, but her entire purpose boils down to “Offhandedly mention the next location the characters need to go to”. This happens to basically every minor character, they clearly hint at being important in some way but end up meaning nothing. Could be worse, they could be the character that’s declared dead, then alive but completely insane, then pops up for the sequel bait moment.
You can certainly tell there is a lot of love by the film makers for this series of books because they put a lot of work into making the short stories come to life and the visuals they created to go with them really work wonderfully. The creature designs for the toeless zombie or Harold the Scarecrow or even the Pale Lady are instantly unnerving and memorable. Each one is well performed and disturbing as hell, even though one of them comes with some good old strobes (not too bad, but bouncing between red and white that fast gave me a headache so just be cautious). When they do the inevitable jump scares with every monster it actually works pretty well, considering we’re getting a sudden shocking look at some terrifying designs. There was definitely a lot more CGI than I’d like, I know it’s used mostly to enhance but some of it just didn’t work right and I sat there knowing several practical effects companies would’ve killed to try and make some of this stuff happen on camera. When the visuals work, they are spectacularly creepy and they do tend to work more often than not.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is certainly a good entry point to the genre, giving audiences a taste of how good horror can be. It has a lot of good, but also just as many problems that weigh it down, mostly in its attempt to turn multiple short stories into a single linear narrative. Maybe if they’d done something like The ABCs of Death did and just adapted every one of the short stories from the original book it might’ve worked a little better, cut out the part that just slows everything down. It’s not a classic and it’s probably not going to be remembered that well, but it’s at least got some really good scenes and designs which can do a lot for a film like this.