Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
by Hope Madden
Was there a story you heard as a kid that scared you sleepless? Mine was Bloody Fingers, the tale of a mangled man who dragged his carcass toward you. You could hear him coming: thump, thump, draaaaag. My neighbor used to sneak up behind me muttering those terrifying words.
Writer Alvin Schwartz knew how to work a kid’s nerves even better than my neighbor. Inspired by campfire tales and urban legends, he spun yarns for maximum kid fright, then paired them—and this is the important part—with the inspired line drawings by Stephen Gammell. The result, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, became the go-to for kids who like to be scared and schools who like to ban books.
Director André Øvredal (TrollHunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and co-writer Guillermo del Toro both know something about tingling the spine. Together with a team of writers—some veterans of horror, some of family films—they’ve created an affectionate and scary ode to the old series of books.
Set in Mill Town, Pennsylvania around Halloween, 1968—trees are turning, Nixon is about to be elected, Night of the Living Dead is showing at the drive in—Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows three wholesome high school outcasts and a handsome out-of-towner. On the run from the Vietnam-bound, letter-jacket wearing bully, they hide in the old, abandoned Bellows place. The town says the house is haunted.
Sounds a little cliched, right? The kind of story you’ve heard over and over, but that’s exactly the point. To begin to tell Schwartz’s tales—all of them pulled from the collective unconscious, all of them drawing on those same old stories that were new to us as kids—Øvredal sets a familiar and appropriate stage.
His framing device works well enough for a while. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who hopes to be a writer herself, swipes creepy old child killer Sarah Bellows’s book of stories, but when she gets them home, new stories write themselves in the blank pages and, one by one, the kids in Mill Town go missing.
This is what PG-13 horror should look like. Yes, like most of the genre films engineered for youngsters, Scary Stories rehashes tropes familiar to adult viewers, but Øvredal’s clear fondness for the terrifying source material, especially the illustrations, gives the film the primal, almost grotesque innocence of a childhood nightmare.
The film’s tone is spot-on, performances solid and the set design and practical effects glorious. This is more than an anthology of shorts. It’s a cohesive whole that contains a handful of Schwartz’s nightmares, but the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts. Too heavy with clichés in the framing device, the film loses steam as it rolls into its third act.
An analogy of lost innocence, nostalgic without becoming too sentimental, this is old school scary, as unapologetically unoriginal as its source material and almost as effective.