I still remember the illustrations. Drawn originally by Stephen Gammell, I remember the feeling of my breath seizing as I stared at the screaming scarecrow on the cover of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and thinking to myself, “Nope.” It would be a couple more years until I would actually conquer my fear and dive into the series as an adolescent. For many, this collection of stories served as a gateway into the horror genre, haunting us long into our adult lives. That’s why when I heard that the book series would be getting a live-action adaptation, I was curious as to how the anthology of stories would be adapted to not only satisfy fans of the original books but also potentially capture the hearts of kids and adolescents as their first foray into the horror genre. I purposely tried to ignore the trailers and footage released prior to seeing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and I’m glad I did. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by the film and hopeful that this film will serve as a proper introduction to horror for the next generation taking its baby steps into the genre.
The film starts off in the past, which continues the trend in recent years of coming-to-age stories being dropped in eras of nostalgia. The year is 1968. The Vietnam War is raging and the election is quickly approaching. However, that takes a back seat in the small town of Mill Valley and the gang of kids that are gathering together to celebrate what might be their last Halloween together. This leads to an unexpected adventure into the long-abandoned Bellows Family mansion, where it has long been rumored that Sarah Bellows had been kept locked away in the house. After Stella (played by Zoe Colletti) finds a book that Sarah had written full of scary stories, chaos gradually ensues as the group of teenagers soon realize that there are consequences to ignoring the power of the stories we tell in the dark. For the sake of keeping spoilers to a minimum, this will be all about the plot that I feel comfortable sharing.
While the acting from the cast of teenagers was great across the board, I really do have to put the spotlight on actress Zoe Colletti. She shines as the socially awkward storyteller Stella and highlights the natural curiosity the character has in needing to live and breathe the stories she takes in. While the curiosity ends up causing the bulk of the issues that the teenagers face moving forward, you can’t help but go along the emotional journey with her because Colletti injects the character with a sincerity that can’t be faked and that sincerity is what will make audience members adore her. By the time you get to the end of the film, all you want is for Stella to make it out of the whole thing mostly unscathed because of how dang lovable the character is.
Now, for horror fans out there, I’ll say this. The scares feel earned for the most part as you watch the kids face their fears in various scenes. There is one terrifying scene in particular that will traumatize arachnophobes everywhere, so if you don’t like spiders maybe avoid this film. You’ll need therapy after that scene. The tension that built up as the story progressed also felt earned. There were many moments in the film where I felt surprised by how subtly the existential dread crept up on me, especially during one scene featuring the well-known, deceptively creepy Pale Lady. While there are people who may not find these scares truly frightening, I think the tension and dread that director André Øvredal has managed to create with the script will be what many remember after the credits start rolling.
There are, of course, a couple of minor issues that do have an impact on the overall movie. I don’t want to delve too much into plot points so as to preserve the surprises in store for the general audience. I will just note that there are plot points that come up a fair bit that either didn’t make sense at times in line with the story or that didn’t have the pay off that I had expected to have like Stella and the blame she placed on herself for her mother abandoning the family. The other issue I had was more scare-related. Whether intentional or not, the appearance of the Jangly Man was more hilarious than frightening to me and I’m not sure how much of that had to do with the rendering of the character in post-production. This note may be more of an issue of personal preference rather than something more constructive, but it was hard to find that particular scary monster frightening in the moment. For young kids though, the Jangly Man would scare the crap out of them.
Overall, I definitely think this is a must-see, fun film to watch. The tension that builds throughout the film feels earned due to the pacing and acting delivered by its young cast. Despite the minor plot holes that crop up, it is easy to get sucked into the world that Øvredal has created alongside writers Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, and Guillermo del Toro. I do recommend that adults going to see the film temper their expectations as this film is clearly meant to be a gateway for kids and young teens into horror.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK REVIEW RATING: 7/10
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark opens in theaters on August 9, 2019. Click here for all our Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark coverage.