Starter Horror: "Scary Stories" ghoulishly fun gateway horror

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
111 min.
Release Date: August 9, 2019 (Wide)

Any child from the 1980s and ‘90s will remember reading—and being terrified by—Alvin Schwartz’s 1981 book “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” the first of three collections of short stories drawn from urban legends. Though naysayers tried banning the books, producer Guillermo del Toro has finally brought the stories and Stephen Gammell’s nightmarish illustrations to the screen. As written by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman with a screenplay credit by del Toro himself and directed by André Øvredal (2016’s tightly controlled and hair-raisingly scary “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”), “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” has not been turned into a horror anthology for teenagers but more of a horror mystery that uses a similar framework to 2015’s “Goosebumps,” where the literary monsters jump off the page. It may not be fun for the characters, but it’s fun for the audience.

1968 in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley is the last autumn of childhood for horror-loving outcast Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her two best friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). On Halloween night, she gets dragged out for some trick-or-treating, but once the trio pranks letterman jacket-wearing bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), they duck into the car of Ramon (Michael Garza), a new face in town, in a drive-in playing “Night of the Living Dead.” Later that night, Stella takes the four boys to a local haunted house, where legend has it that the ghost of Sarah Bellows tells children scary stories that are usually their last before they go missing. In a secret passageway, Bella finds Sarah’s book of scary stories, and once she takes it home, the stories begin writing themselves and taking out the group of friends. As Stella realizes, “You don’t read the book, the book reads you!”

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is not only faithful to the creepy imagery of the source material, but it also gets the spirit just right — nightmare fuel that makes being scared more enjoyable than traumatic. Director André Øvredal decidedly knows his way around a horrific set-piece; one set in a cornfield with a scarecrow named Harold is spooky and surprisingly intense for a PG-13 rated film; certain tales, like “The Big Toe” and “The Red Spot,” deliver two of the film’s most memorable gross-outs when it comes to a corpse's toe found in Auggie’s stew and a growing pimple on the face of Chuck’s older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) before her school musical; and a sequence in a red-tinted hospital hallway where one of the characters feels trapped by a pale, blobby woman is executed with an eerie sense of inescapable danger. CGI aside, particularly with the Jangly Man from the “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” yarn, the practical effects of the grotesque creatures are excellent, and Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over their design. 

The performances are a little green, even flat (or perhaps it’s a case of occasionally clunky dialogue) but wholly convincing by the young actors. Leading the boys, Zoe Margaret Colletti is earnest and appealing as Stella, a root-worthy heroine who also happens to be an aspiring writer. Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, and Lorraine Toussaint co-star, too, as Stella’s father Roy, Chief Turner, and Sarah Bellows’ former servant Lou Lou, respectively, but this is mainly a showcase for the younger set. 

The 1968 period details loom in the background, from Richard Nixon’s re-election and news of the Vietnam War—“Say ‘No’ to Vietnam!”—seen on television sets, and themes of racism percolate with the addition of Ramon. The early use of the 1966 Donovan song “Season of the Witch” is also used well to set up the seasonal vibe. If there is any downside to the story, it is that the film gets slightly bogged down in too much mythologizing with the legend of Sarah Bellows and Nancy Drew-ing for Stella and her friends, as well as an open ending that promises “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Ghoulish and, above all, fun, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is gateway horror done right without watering down the fear and the healing power of scary stories.

Grade: B