Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: The Movie: The Review

I'm going to discuss the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film in detail in this post. As such, there will be material that could be considered spoilers, so if you're trying to avoid those, you should probably see the movie first before reading this. And if you're just looking for a brief, spoiler-free review: I liked it.

When I first learned that a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark movie was in development, I admit I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, Alvin Schwartz's books are a beloved and significant part of my life, which I have written about quite extensively over the last decade, so of course the planned adaptation offered exciting and unexpected possibilities. And the involvement of Guillermo Del Toro was extremely promising, as he had the star power to get the project off the ground while also representing what seemed, in theory, a perfect fit for the material itself, having shown a flair for ornately unsettling aesthetics and a warm but macabre sensibility that lined up well with the qualities that have made the books so enduring.
On the other hand, plenty of projects end up forever rotting in development hell, and the exact nature of the books made them seem to be an odd choice for a film. On paper, adapting an collection of folklore from the 80s optimized for telling around a campfire would likely present some narrative challenges. Would the movie be a Creepshow-esque anthology? Major studios tend to shy away from such films, but it seemed the most obvious choice. The fact that several of these stories have already been adapted elsewhere (the urban legend providing the basis for "The Babysitter," for example, can be seen in film form with When A Stranger Calls, and the basic story beats from "Room for One More" and "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave" were the basis for episodes of The Twilight Zone, for a few examples) provided an additional wrinkle, and posed the question of how one can put a fresh spin on such time-tested tales, many of which predate the books themselves by decades if not centuries. And how could a film capture the most notorious aspect of the books: Stephen Gammell's twisted, nightmarish artwork? The illustrations are so surreal and stylized that presenting them in live action could be difficult bordering on impossible. Would the movie be animated? Could the human mind even handle the trauma of feature-length animated Gammell ghoulies? A few animated gifs of the original artwork suggest perhaps not.
Now that I have seen the final product, I can happily say that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark manages to thread the proverbial needle and overcome these challenges to become a fun, spooky movie that strongly evokes the original material while bringing its own ideas to the table. For one thing, the story ditches the anthology format for a linear narrative, albeit one fraught with set pieces. Taking place in 1968, it follows a group of adolescents as they face horrors both supernatural and man-made, growing and maybe also dying along the way. Appropriately enough given the book's release date, Scary Stories is a coming of age thriller in the Spielberg/King tradition, recently repopularized by Stranger Things and the IT remake. To reuse a joke I posted on Twitter: call it Stand by Me Tie Dough-ty Walker.
The format works quite well, for a few reasons. First and foremost, the visuals and production value are superb. Director André Øvredal (yes, I had to copy and paste that name from Google because I have no idea how to type it out) has done the seemingly impossible here, allowing Stephen Gammell's warped illustrations to recognizably come to life alongside their human counterparts, resembling their book counterparts without taking the viewer out of things by looking too unrealistic. Honestly, the only way the movie could look more like the original artwork is if they had made every surface grimy and draped in inexplicable tendrils.
By the same token, focusing on the stories with recognizable monsters/images was a good call. Sure, some liberties are certainly taken with how each story was presented, but each one revolvs around a particular creature terrorizing our intrepid band of youths. By favoring tangible but fantastic threats like murderous scarecrows and vengeful corpses over poisonous prom gowns and heavily accented window wipers, the film is able to craft vignettes that bring to life the moody, terrifying ambiance that made the original books so special.
The overarching storyline that serves as a bridge between these vignettes contains its own ominous elements. There is 2000% more Richard Nixon in this movie than I expected, and the specter of the Vietnam War looms large over the quieter moments here. A Hispanic character, Ramón is the target of repeated racist harassment (more on that later), and teenagers being teenagers, all the main characters have their own fears and worries even before the hauntings start. Though the message the movie is trying to convey with all this can be a bit muddled at times, such real world concerns are not out of place in a film centered around scary stories. As Alvin Schwartz notes in the first book, "[m]ost of these stories are expressions of the anxiety people have about certain aspects of their lives." As we find ourselves surrounded by tales of terror come alive, we also experience some of the anxieties that spark these stories in the first place.

Now let's take a look at the movie in the context of the book. In the film's universe, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a supernatural tome written by a dead woman that sends the reader bloody predictive texts foretelling a grisly fate. Since the film is set in 1968 and the book it is based on was released in 1981, is the movie insinuating that author Alvin Schwartz is a plagiarist? Does claiming credit for a book written by a ghost even count as plagiarism? Copyright law involving menacing phantasms is just so murky sometimes.
Anyway, I'd like to do a quick rundown of which stories the movie referenced, and how they were presented in the context of the movie. It's certainly possible that I missed something, so if you noticed any other references, please feel free to drop some knowledge in the comments.

1. "The Hearse Song"

The melody of this memorable little ditty about having your corpse devoured by worms welcomes you to the film, letting you know that you're in the capable hands of people who really engaged with the material. You'll hear the song again later, playing in music box tones as the protagonists explore the haunted house where they find the titular book.

2. "Harold"

Generally recognized as the scariest scary story of them all, "Harold"'s eponymous murder scarecrow popped up in the initial trailer, reassuring viewers that this movie wasn't going to overlook what brought the books to the dance, so to speak. His story arc in the movie plays out roughly similar to what happens in the books. When a local letter jacket-wearing thug abuses poor Harold-which seems ill-advised...even if he was just a normal, non-demonic scarecrow, Harold's still just so creepy looking that beating on him with a bat just seems like tempting fate-the scarecrow seeks vengeance, stalking the boy through a cornfield before condemning him to a fate somewhat less grisly than the one indicated in the original story, but no less horrific.

3. "The Big Toe"

This is an interesting one because in the original story, we never see precisely whose big toe gets eaten. In the film, the shambling horror that comes after their partially masticated toe is fully revealed to us for the first time, and boy, is it creepy looking. The sequence is particularly well-done, as it evokes the suspenseful back and forth of the original story without the utterly bizarre premise that not just one person but an entirely family would unquestioningly chop up, cook and eat a random toe they found in their garden.

4. "The Dream"

Like about half of the stories here, this one originated in Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. Oddly, nothing from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark shows up in the film, though given that it is probably the most esoteric of the three volumes, I suppose that's not incredibly surprising. In any case, the version of "The Dream" we see in Scary Stories is quite unlike the source material. Rather than a weird tale about a nightmare coming to life in the world's worst Airbnb, the dream referenced here foretells a deadly encounter in a red-tinted halls of a mental hospital with the "Pale Lady" depicted in the books. An inescapable force, the Pale Lady manages to be everywhere at once, her little button eyes and perpetual grin locked on her prey, for whom she has but one goal: unwanted (and unsafe) snuggling.

5. "Sam's New Pet"

Unlike most of the other stories referenced here, this one isn't brought to life by Sarah Bellows's haunted storybook. In fact, it gets mentioned before anyone even finds the book. And I'm glad it did! As I mentioned above, the movie does not shy away from some of the darker aspects of 1960s America, including the overt racism directed at poor Ramón by some of the locals. When I wrote about "Sam's New Pet" in my original Power Rankings article for Scary Stories 3, I puzzled over how the story is supposed to be read. Is it a story using a symbol to enforce racist beliefs, or an indictment of the ignorance that allows such beliefs to perpetuate? So when Ramón brings up the story as an example of the awfully problematic relationship urban legends can have with race and stereotypes, it both furthers the conversation and put us squarely on the "perpetuating negative stereotypes is a bad thing" side of interpreting the story. It's an elegant way of looping this story into the narrative without say, having someone menaced by a chihuahua that transforms into a monstrous rabid sewer rat.

6. "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker"/"'What Do You Come For?'"

Thought the latter title is not officially mentioned in the movie, both stories seem to be conflated into one in the form of the film's Jangly Man monster ("'What Do You Come For? '" describes its antagonist as "a great, gangling man," which sounds awfully similar), a twisted mass of detachable limbs that would not be out of place in the Silent Hill universe. And this makes sense, since both stories do involve dismembered body parts falling down a chimney and assailing some poor doomed oddly specific storyline, if you really think about it. "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker" clearly serves as the inspiration for the scene's setup, as a whining dog responds to the cries announcing the creature's arrival, though sadly the dog doesn't randomly start singing like in the original. However, "Me Tie" only involves a bloody head falling down the chimney, whereas "'What Do You Come For?'" describes the whole body tumbling onto the floor, which is what we see here. In any case, it definitely works here, as the Jangly Man is the most overtly violent, feral monster in the movie, and a worthy stitched-together interpretation of the gross body parts Gammell depicts.

7. "The Red Spot"

Also from Scary Stories 3, this is certainly one of the most notorious tales here, and one that certainly resonates with me, an arachnophobe. The original is a simple story, and the story adapts it in a straightforward, if heightened way. In the book, the poor girl merely has one egg sac worth of baby spiders run down her ruptured cheek. In the movie, a tidal wave of arachnids spews forth from beneath her epidermis. It's quite a revolting sight. At least she survives and doesn't get dragged into some hell dimension or whatever happens to some of these kids.

8. "The Haunted House"

And here we have the story that provides the most notoriously unsettling illustration of the entire book trilogy. This one is extremely loosely depicted in the film, despite being called out by name. The film's main villain/force that brings the stories to life in the first place is the phantom of Sarah Bellows, and when we see her head-on, she definitely resembles this:

Other than that, the only real similarity between the original story and the movie version is, well, they both feature a haunted house. No finger bones in the church collection plate in the movie, that's for sure.

So where do we go from here? The film's ending certainly suggests that the creators at least have a sequel in mind, and early box office returns have been strong. If they do go ahead with more movies, they can just go with the naming scheme of the books and produce a trilogy. There's certainly no lack of material left to adapt, and the possibilities are nearly endless. Could we see a wisecracking Aaron Kelly sidekick in the future? Will one of the kids go on an acid trip and hallucinate the entirety of "A Man Who Lived in Leeds"? Will they keep the series going way too long and have to adapt the absolute dregs like "The Walk"? Personally, I'm hoping for a solo "BA-ROOOM!" origin film so I can find out how O'Leary and O'Reilly managed to die in bed with each other without knowing it. Either that or a gritty reboot of "The Dead Man's Brains" featuring actual cannibalism.
Overall, I was very pleased with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for the franchise (if that's the right word for it). It's a true, old-school spooky PG-13 film that, like the source material, is light on gore but heavy on atmosphere, and will likely serve to introduce a new generation to the books that so traumatized us back in the day. But we're not quite done yet! There is a tie-in book being released next week to accompany the movie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: The Haunted Notebook of Sarah Bellows. Join me next time as we explore what this volume has to offer, and let me know your thoughts on the movie in the comments!

Joey Marsilio wrote the novel Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior in between blog posts about old scary books for kids. He is also available to play the wisecracking Aaron Kelly in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark sequel.


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