Stories are powerful, and you need look no further than religious texts to see the influence they can have on living, breathing people. Movies, themselves stories made of images and words, have explored how the tales we tell ourselves can often enter our lives in very real ways. From In the Mouth of Madness (1995) to Stranger Than Fiction (2006), it’s an idea we’ve seen before, and the latest film to explore the concept is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The film, itself based on a bestselling series of books for young adults, pairs its thesis with creepy imagery, spooky atmosphere, and an allegory that’s maybe a bit too close to the surface, but the result is a fun horror film suitable for kids and adults alike.
Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a horror-loving teen in late 60s small-town America, and while her father (Dean Norris) keeps a roof over their heads both dad and daughter have not quite gotten over Stella’s mom bailing on her family and leaving town several years prior. It’s Halloween night, and her plans with her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are interrupted when bullies chase them into a drive-in where they cross paths with a newcomer to town named Ramon (Michael Garza). Flush with excitement at eluding the teenaged thugs, the foursome head to an old house on the outskirts of town. Every town has one, a home with a history whispered about in schoolyards and coffee shops, but the kids discover sometimes rumors are based in truth. Stella takes a book from the house and watches in terror as a story appears on the page in red “ink.” A story that comes true. And then she watches as it happens again.
The books by Alvin Schwartz feature stories collected from folklore and illustrated with grotesque beauty by Stephen Gammell, and it’s those images that caught producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro‘s eye leading to this film. Readers familiar with the stories will recognize characters who’ve haunted their dreams, but even viewers new to this world will feel the immediate chill and terror that follows some of their arrivals. Director André Øvredal brings the unsettling, black & white illustrations to life here with a movie that acknowledges the power of both words and imagery, and the result is a horror film that blends genre familiarity with uniquely frightening creations. It’s also one with visuals and ideas designed to appeal to horror fans from pre-teens on up, and that’s always something worth celebrating.
The script, credited to del Toro and Dan & Kevin Hageman, layers an allegorical commentary throughout their otherwise highly traditional tale, and while it’s laid on a bit thick at times the effect remains. The straightforward story sees young teens paying the price for entering a spooky house, but from there they’re dealing with the deadly power of history as one family’s past begins to take a toll on the town’s present. Old stories, new pains. As the real world sends young men off to die in Vietnam, as Americans prepare to vote Richard Nixon back into office, the power of the stories we tell each other comes clearer. Stories are lies, lies meant mostly to entertain, but sometimes the purpose is far more insidious.
While younger viewers may miss these intentions — it’s a great conversation starter for the drive home from the theater — they should be more than happy with the creepy creations and visuals. Some shoddy spider CG effects aside, the monsters here are terrifically icky, weird, and at times scary threats who terrorize the living as each new story targets another one of Stella’s friends and neighbors. From a living scarecrow to a corpse understandably upset at the teen who ate her toe, the creatures are designed with care and captured with an eye for suspense and atmosphere by Øvredal. As he did with The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), Øvredal shapes and milks scenes for maximum tension before revealing the threat, but he also delivers more manic and frightening thrills when the monster demands it. One being’s entrance through a chimney is a damn delight regardless of how long you’ve been a horror fan.
The pacing may also lose some younger viewers as at nearly two hours the film takes its time unfurling the story and peppering it with asides that don’t always feel as immediate as the monsters at hand. Time devoted to Stella’s absent mother is more than just filler, though, as it’s one of the film’s real-world examples of the power of stories. In this case it’s the story Stella has told herself, that it’s her fault her mom left, that has added undue trauma and pain to her young life. On a grander scale it’s the story told to the American people about the importance of fighting a war halfway around the world. As mentioned, the subtext becomes text due to frequency, but it’s a welcome weight to an otherwise simple tale of myths and monsters, and while some kids might still miss it others won’t. Drawing young viewers into the existence of scary movies with substance is a noble cause that just might earn you a Parent of the Year ribbon. And who doesn’t want a ribbon?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a complete tale, but elements are left open for a sequel young horror fans would be lucky to get. Too often genre fare for “kids” is dumbed down, generic, and overly reliant on lazy jump scares. While this film’s familiar at times, it also has more going on than a mere paint by numbers formula. And while there are some sudden scares, Øvredal also takes care to craft atmosphere and employ misdirection in his pursuit of entertaining terror. The film’s period setting and kids in peril will undoubtedly remind viewers of Stephen King’s It — especially of the movie and its impending second chapter — but the beauty of stories isn’t found in the broad strokes. It’s in the details between the lines, between the pages, and between bedtime and morning when you hope to wake up from your nightmares.