We are back with another entry in our Fall Themed Horror series. Today we will indulging in some Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark courtesy of producer Guillermo Del Toro and director André Øvredal. This is the second of Øvredal’s movies we have recently reviewed. We covered the excellent The Autopsy of Jane Doe for our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature and really enjoyed it. Scary Stories is another movie that fits firmly into the Fall Themed horror category. Starting on Halloween, the events of the movie end around the first week of November.
Today’s movie couldn’t be much further apart from the aforementioned, however. Made for a younger audience and acting as the perfect gateway into horror fandom. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is far more akin to Goosebumps and the like. Based on the children’s book series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories attempts to capture what made those books so popular. Let’s take a look. As always I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie which you can skip if you like.
November is Fall themed Horror month. We will be reviewing a few movies every week that feature an autumn setting. The criteria is pretty broad here as the fall setting is rarely pivotal to the plot of a movie. It’s more of a coincidence than anything. Fallen leaves and orange hues are a must, however. When Fall Themed Horror month is over, we move onto December and Awful Advent. 25 days of Christmas themed horror reviews leading up to the big day. Definitely keep an eye out for that.
Set in the autumn of 1968, three friends, Stella, Auggie and Chuck, played by Zoe Colletti, Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur respectively, head out for Halloween. Chuck has filled a bag with his own shit, among other things, and aims to get back at the local bully Tommy, played by Austin Abrams, for stealing kid’s trick or treat candy every year.
Right on cue, Tommy and his friends appear in their car at the bottom of the street. Chuck holds out a sack of smelly clothes for the bullies to take. They do exactly that but quickly realise they have been set up so slam on the brakes. The three friends use this opportunity to egg the bully’s car which provokes them to reverse. As they reverse Chuck ignites the bag of crap and throws it through the window of the car causing the bullies to crash. The group make a run for it with Tommy and his friends in hot pursuit.
The friends make it to the drive in cinema and jump into the car of an unsuspecting man called Ramón, played by Michael Garza. The bullies find the friends in the car but are removed from the cinema by staff. Grateful to Ramón, Stella suggests they celebrate Halloween by going to a haunted house. The group agree and head there. The house is apparently the home of the Bellows family whose daughter, Sarah, was accused of witchcraft and locked in the basement.
While exploring the house, Ramón and Stella discover a hidden door. The door leads to the basement room Sarah was locked in as a child. They head down and find a book full of scary stories that Sarah used to write to pass the time while stuck in the dark room. Suddenly Tommy appears and goads the four friends before locking the group in the basement. Stella reads from the book and, suddenly, the door unlocks. Stella stashes the book away in her bag and the group leave the house. Little does Stella know that she made a fatal mistake by taking Sarah’s book as her stories will continue but with a whole new cast of characters.
Released back in 2019, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is one of those perfect Halloween movies. We originally watched it in the cinema back when it released and then again, recently, for this review. Kicking off on Halloween itself, it runs through the first week of November and features that typical fall feel. Based on the book series by Alvin Schwartz, the movie acts as a collection of dark tales brought to life. These tales are connected together by a main story that focuses primarily on Stella and her fascination with Sarah Bellows and the book she wrote.
Featuring a fairly slow moving plot, it is a little while before we actually get to see some of the stories from the source material. The movie first introduces the characters that we will be following along with. Stella is something of a bookish kid who is obsessed with horror movies. Chuck is a bit of a joker who doesn’t take things too seriously. Auggie is a little uptight and appears to be the straight man to Chuck. We also meet Ramón who is the “cool” member of the group, drives a car and is, apparently, all too willing to do the bidding of a bunch of kids.
Easily likeable, the cast are the driving force of the plot and it is up to them to uncover the mystery of Sarah Bellow’s book of scary stories. We see their attempts to evade a group of bullies, escape the house, and then to address the sudden strange happenings that are taking place around them. Things escalate pretty quickly once they begin and it is clear the group don’t have much time to deal with the threat.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a relatively well paced and engaging movie. Clearly aimed at a younger audience, there is an almost Goonies-esque sense of adventure to the story. We see a close group of friends who are, obviously, somewhat outcast fighting back against a bunch of assholes. They visit a spooky haunted house, uncover mysteries, and have the crap scared out of them. It is good, old fashioned, light horror fun and entirely enjoyable for it. It really reminds me of movies like The Monster Squad.
It’s hard not to enjoy the camaraderie of the group and the fact that they are all so likeable makes it all the easier. Chuck, in particular, is hilarious. Most people remember the fun of Halloween back when they were kids and Scary Stories does a great job of capturing this. It helps that there are some genuinely tense moments. Scenes such as the one that features a character hiding under a bed from a hideous monster are very effective. There is another scene that stands out for it’s use of an almost hall of mirrors like effect to confuse a character. Legitimately tense, the movie does a great job of creating an atmosphere of dread and maintains it for much of the runtime.
There is an almost fairground haunted house manner to how the scares in this film are delivered. The setup is fairly obvious. There are visual cues so you know that the shit is about to hit the fan and the slight use of exposition has you waiting with baited breath for what is about to happen. It’s very well done and guarantees that there is rarely a long period of time with nothing going on. I can only imagine fans of the books love the sense of anticipation that comes from wondering which of the monster from the original short stories will be appearing next.
Being honest, I have never heard of the kid’s books before. I am not sure whether they were just not released here in the UK or what. It is obvious that they are very popular in the US and the illustrations, in particular, caused quite some controversy. Apparently certain people believed they were too graphic and scary for young people and wanted them removed from school libraries. Looking at some of the illustrations, it would appear that the makers of the movie have gone to tremendous effort to bring them to life exactly how they looked in the books.
The main difference with the movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the way the tales are presented. Instead of opting for an anthology style movie. The producers decided to create a singular story and push the events from the books on to the characters themselves. Whether this is the best way to go about things is up for debate. The connecting story certainly takes most of the focus meaning that the ability to recreate many of the short stories is somewhat stunted. It feels as though there was a lot of meat left on the bone here and wasted opportunities for more scares.
Part of me thinks it may have been better to recreate a bunch of the short stories and loosely connect them with someone reading from the book. At times the main story can drag the flow of the movie down a little. The characters are easy to like and the story isn’t difficult to invest in. The movie is at it’s best, however, when it is presenting the viewer with horrific looking creatures and trying to scare the crap out of them.
Producer Guillermo Del Toro did go into this a little. He said that anthology movies are always as bad as the worst segment but never as good as the best. With this in mind, he wanted to avoid dragging the entire movie down with one story. Seems a bit of a cop-out to be honest. They seemingly didn’t have faith in their ability to produce numerous decent segments so went in a completely direction. I can understand where he is coming from though.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a perfect introduction to the horror genre for older kids and young teens. Featuring only minor sexual references, mild language, no nudity and limited gore. It seems like this would be an ideal first step into horror for many children. Despite this the movie, in the UK, is rated as a 15. That seems a bit harsh and I am not sure why it is given this rating. It is worth pointing out, as well, that this is an ideal option for people who are not fans of really scary movies. People who don’t like gore may find themselves really enjoying this. It’s a great option for sleep over viewing, as well, for this exact reason.
It has to be said, however, that some of the scenes may not be suitable for young children. There are a few parts of the film that are, legitimately, quite scary and certain scenes may be upsetting for more sensitive young viewers. With that being said, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark falls into the same category as movies like Coraline, Sleepy Hollow and ParaNorman as easy going horror. It’s great fun, well paced, and is sure to keep most kids entertained throughout.
Cinematography on Scary Stories is suitably great. Set in the late 1960’s, it’s hard not to notice and appreciate the interesting aesthetic. Gorgeous classic American cars litter the roads, flared cords are in fashion and the places the kids visit are charmingly retro. Filmed in a modern 2.35:1 aspect ration, the sharpness of the shots doesn’t lend much of an aged feeling to the production. It can be easy to forget that the movie takes place in 68. It looks fantastic, however, and the creative use of angles, particularly when the teens visit the haunted house, really adds to the traditional horror feeling of the movie. Panning shots of the local town are gorgeous and the warmly lit indoor scenes look great.
Set design is very nice. The Bellow’s house is creepy in its ominous, near permanent, darkness. Later trips to the house in its former glory are noteworthy for how bright and vibrant they look. Retro attractions like the drive in cinema are welcome for their reinforcement of the time period. It can be all too easy to forget when the movie is set thanks to the crispness of the cinematography. Later scenes featuring one of the monsters stand out for the hall of mirrors style nature of the set. It does a fantastic job of capturing the dream like confusion the character in question is feeling. All in all, it’s a brilliant looking movie with a unique and interesting aesthetic.
Acting in Scary Stories is solid, pretty much, throughout. Zoe Colletti, as Stella, is really decent. Tasked with providing an emotive and raw performance, in parts. She does a fantastic job and you genuinely buy into the effect her backstory has had on her. There is a scene right near the end of the movie where she is experiencing a harrowing event. Colletti does a brilliant job here of expressing fear and is entirely convincing.
There are a few moments here and there where the gravity of the situation seems to go over Stella’s head. Given what is happening to the character and her closest friends. It seems strange that she would be smiling and excited to find out more about this random dead person who is actively ruining her life. I blame this more on direction than Colletti, however, as she is excellent throughout.
Side characters are great. Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur, as Auggie and Chuck, have excellent chemistry and play off each other really well. Michael Garza, as Ramón, is fine at what he is asked to do. His character lacks some of the comical writing of the other boys. The role almost feels like a background character despite the amount of screen time afforded to him. Austin Abrams, as bully Tommy, puts on a bit of a weird performance. At times, he almost seems possessed and as if he should be drooling like Pennywise in the movie version of It. I think his motivation here could have used a little addressing as the character feels over the top and a bit out of place. He would be great portraying a serial killer in a more serious movie, though.
There are a few things to point out with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Firstly, it is not that scary. This is both a positive and a negative, as mentioned above. Perfect for younger viewers, people who are looking to be scared are going to be a little disappointed. I am a fan of most types of horror and I really enjoyed this movie. Some people are not going to find what they are looking for, however. Think of it like Goosebumps but for slightly older kids. That doesn’t mean the film offers nothing to horror fans, though. The designs are fantastically creepy and it can be genuinely tense in parts.
The fact that the movie is fairly light on scares but actually quite disturbing in parts can leave it feeling a little confused. The 15 rating only adds to this. I am not sure who they were exactly attempting to aim the movie at. I would suggest a watch before putting it on for your kids as, like I mentioned above, some scenes will definitely upset more sensitive young people. Some of the visual effects bear mention. For the most part it is absolutely fine and, at times, even quite impressive. Some of the effects are pretty bad, however. The monster that appears towards the end of the movie, for example, requires heavy use of CG. It looks pretty jarring and very unconvincing which takes away from what could have been the scariest part of the film.
Runtime is a bit of an issue. The movie is 108 minutes long which is a bit too much to be honest. Parts of the middle do drag a bit. Most of the characters remain underdeveloped and there is little meat to chew on other than the main plot itself. The thrills come in fast and the parts in between can feel a little lacking. Other than that, Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark is a fun, old fashioned horror movie that is a bunch of light laughs and perfect for younger people.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a light hearted, adventure filled, mystery horror that brings back memories of movies like The Goonies and Monster Squad. Easy to watch and full of humorous moments, Scary Stories is the perfect horror to introduce teens and young people to the genre. Not particularly scary, the film still has plenty of tension and loads of atmosphere.
Whereas the movie may not be ideal for very young kids, it is engaging and creative throughout so should keep younger people entertained. Acting is fantastic with special mention going to Zoe Colletti. Monster designs stand out for how creepy they are and the suspense builds perfectly between scares. A little slow paced in the middle, a little lacking in character development and perhaps a bit confused about who the intended audience is, visual effects can also be mixed at times. Still a great movie and the perfect option for Halloween and fall viewing. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is well worth a watch for horror fans of all ages.