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Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

August 12, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz is frequently included on lists of the most banned and challenged books due to its disturbing subject matter and creepy black and white illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

The three books, which were originally published between 1981 and 1991 and became hugely popular with older kids, compiled dozens of short horror stories that were mostly inspired by old folk tales and were perfect for being read aloud in dramatic fashion around a campfire, hence the title.

Schwartz’s books sparked fear in a whole generation of kids looking to get spooked, so it’s only fitting that director André Øverdal’s long awaited big screen adaptation of the series, which is produced by the one and only Guillermo del Toro, is a PG-13 horror film that will scare the crap out of kids who see it and hopefully get them hooked on horror for life. Rather than taking a straight anthology approach to adapting the series, Øverdal and del Toro instead weave several iconic tales from the books into a plot that revolves around a group of kids finding an old diary that writes itself, spelling doom for whoever becomes the subject of its stories.

It’s 1968. The Vietnam War is raging, and America is on the verge of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Stella Nichols (Zoe Margaret Coletti), Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur) and Auggie Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush) are three friends hanging out on Halloween night, trying to finally get revenge on a group of bullies led by Tommy (Austin Abrams) who have stolen their candy every other year. The three kids end up on the run from Tommy and his gang, and find themselves teaming up with Ramón Morales (Michael Garza), a Mexican kid who is passing through town for mysterious reasons, when they take refuge in his car at the drive thru during a screening of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The four of them go to investigate a creepy old haunted house where a girl named Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) was kept locked in the basement and used to tell scary stories to local kids through the wall until, as the story goes, she hung herself with her own hair. It’s here that they discover the book, which Stella naively takes home with her. The book starts writing stories in blood that feature locals in the town, including Tommy and Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), making them the victim of monsters that appear first on the page and then in real life.

With the story of Sarah Bellows and her book serving as the through line, Øverdal references and reimagines such stories such as Harold, The Big Toe, The Red Spot, The Dream, and Me Tie Dough-ty Walker. These include iconic monsters like Harold the Scarecrow, The Pale Lady, a zombie on the prowl for its missing toe, and a new creation called The Jangly Man, a dismembered corpse who reassembles himself to wreak havoc and is an amalgamation of different elements from Schwartz’s books. The look of the monsters is heavily inspired by Gammell’s iconic illustrations, and the film uses practical effects whenever possible, relying on the physical capabilities of contortionist Troy James to bring The Jangly Man to life with a brilliant, terrifying performance.

The biggest thing that can be said about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is that it is a lot of fun to watch, offering just the right mix of scenes that are entertaining, gross and creepy. The various set-pieces allow the film to dabble in different horror genres, including elements of haunted house movie; zombie flick; psychological thriller during a very well staged sequence involving The Pale Lady (played by actor Mark Steger, under layers of terrifying latex), which unfolds in the halls of an old hospital and makes great use of mirrors to delivers a palpable sense of creeping dread; and even full on body horror during The Red Spot sequence, in which spiders emerge from a nasty zit.

The film captures the Halloween night feeling perfectly, using its autumn setting and colour palate to establish an appealing sense of atmosphere. It’s fittingly bookended by the song “Season of the Witch,” opening with the original by Donovan and closing with an eery cover by Lana Del Rey. The story also does a nice job of weaving in some broader social themes, touching on the injustice of working class youth being drafted to fight in the useless Vietnam War only to be sent home in body bags, as well as racism towards Hispanics, something that is sadly still all too relevant.

While it’s not necessary overly scary for adults, the film really embraces its PG-13 rating, and doesn’t hold back from trying to terrify the budding adolescent horror movie fans it is aimed at. Older kids in particular are going to have a blast with this film, which is exactly what you want from an adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, with it hopefully acting as a sort of genre cinema gateway drug. And the ending leaves things wide open for a sequel, so we will hopefully see more of these frightful tales on the big screen in the near future.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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