Our staff reviews “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” — a childhood favorite and the genesis of much genre love brought to life on the big screen.
Intro by Angry Princess (Editor-in-Chief)
I often wonder whether horror fans are born or made. It’s quite possible there is just something in our innate brain chemistry that makes us especially drawn to the darker underbelly of fantasy and storytelling. Perhaps we come out of the womb pre-disposed to loving all things creepy, disturbing, and terrifying.
But even if the “scary story” gene is pre-installed, it’s the exposure to these scary stories which triggers that first rush of endorphins and tells us our brains, “This here, this is something special. Find more of this.”
Most lifelong horror fans I know found their passion for the genre at a very early age.
And most of us can remember the first horror film that really connected with with us and made us fall in love with how it felt to be scared. But it wasn’t just the movies that stirred our imagination and gave us that adrenaline rush we so craved.
In fact, many young fans weren’t allowed to watch horror until we were quite a bit older. However, we could get our first taste of terror in the pages of juvenile fiction. Books were almost always socially acceptable. Whereas horror films were often ridiculed and scorned, and still are to this day by many, books were the gateway drug that most parents and educators freely pushed without reservation.
While most fiction targeted at young people was relatively tame and innocuous, there were some writers who pushed the boundaries and offered young horror fans a taste of real terror. The first volume of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, published in 1981, contained 29 bone-chilling stories that were incredibly fun but also genuinely frightening. These stories, accompanied by the nightmare-inducing artwork by Stephen Gammell, become a cultural touchstone for a generation.
They say you never forget your first love.
And for so many of us horror fans of a certain generation, “Scary Stories” gave us our first taste of horror euphoria and made us fall in love with the genre. We may have been born to crave the darkside, but “Scary Stories” was the education we needed to evolve into the genre junkies we are today. Thus, the idea of seeing our childhood memories brought to life on the big screen was almost impossible to resist.
Of course, for anything that holds such an overwhelming nostalgic importance, the risk of severe disappointment is high. Sometimes we can’t help but love something just because of what it represents to us. Other times, we can’t stand to see our memories being bastardized by an inferior representation.
So, does Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark deliver or disappoint?
Our team headed to the theater this weekend to answer that question. Keep reading to hear seven different takes on the film from seven different writers, each of whom were impacted by the books in different ways. While the feedback wasn’t quite unanimous, most of us were fairly captivated by the earnest and loving attempt to capture the magic of the books and recreate the wonder these stories first instilled in our young horror loving hearts.
Note: If you’re a fan of the Scary Stories books, I strongly encourage you to check out the documentary called Scary Stories about the beloved, controversial books by Alvin Schwartz that helped shaped a generation of future horror fans.
TAKE ONE: A LACKLUSTER ATTEMPT TO RECREATE LITERARY MAGIC
When I heard that Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was being turned into a movie, I had a few different feelings – mostly confusion on how they would turn it into a cohesive piece of film. But then I heard Guillermo del Toro had a hand in it, and I perked right up. My hopes and dreams were such as that we would get some mixture of Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which was also written by del Toro. What we actually got wasn’t quite that.
What starts off as a classic style teen movie, with bullies and nerds at war, with a few light-hearted gags – where we’re introduced to the main cast of characters – turns into a brief subplot that has a very Goonies feel to it. It’s there where things take a turn for the group. It’s there where the clever way to turn the classic book into a movie begins to shine. However, it’s also there where things start to go downhill.
While the cinematography is brilliant (you’d expect nothing less from a AAA movie), and the sound design is flawless, the plot in-and-of-itself felt a little contrived, like it was picking things from other movies and sticking them in there simply because “that’s how movies work.”
Everything about it felt generic once we got into the second act.
There were jump-scares, there were monsters, there were events after events – and that’s where the biggest problem was presented. It felt just like a series of events. The kids went from one place to another, trying to find out more about Sarah Bellows, the author behind the book that’s central to the movie, all the while trying to stay alive.
If you read that and thought Well, that sounds like a movie I watched last week, you probably wouldn’t be wrong. Swap out the details, and you have a typical plot, with typical storytelling, which is a shame since del Toro penned and produced at least a part of it. It really makes me wonder if this was just one of those projects he was associated with, but didn’t have much pull on, and that his name was little more than a marketing ploy.
The effects used were not much better than the rest of it.
Some of the monster designs were alright, as the actual book was used as inspiration. But the execution was, well, silly. Scenes that were meant to be spooky, eerie, creepy, or frightening were almost laughable. I felt that a little too much CGI was used.
I’m a huge proponent of practical effects, and I believe one monster was almost entirely practical, while the others seemed to be a mixture of the two. And the all practical one blew the other two out of the water.
As I entered the third act, I began to really think on why everything felt so generic; the movie was rated PG-13, which I feel was a mistake. Sure the movie is centered around kids, and it is technically a kid’s book, but most of those who have read the book, or at least grew up with it are well into their 30s.
One main reason for the existence of this movie is for the nostalgia of it – at least that’s what I would have assumed, therefore it should have been made for adults. Sure, taking an R rating can hit the box office, but is this movie going to cross the billion dollar mark? Unlikely.
In the end, I feel that an R-rating might have actually made this into a solid movie, much like the latest installment(s) if It.
See it if you’re a fan of the book, as I’m sure it’ll be fun (or you’ll hate it, one or the other). Otherwise, wait for a streaming service to pick it up and watch on a rainy day.
TAKE TWO: THESE “STORIES” STILL TERRIFY…ALL THESE YEARS LATER
I was scared of everything as a kid… I suppose you could say that I still am. So, to face my fears I surrounded myself with horror. Everyday was Halloween! I read “Goosebumps” and watched “Are You Afraid of the Dark”… but when I was feeling especially brave I would pull out the book, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
I haven’t thought about that book in years, but fast forward to last Saturday when I was sitting in the middle of a packed theater and those memories came back!
That movie was a nightmare on screen.
The old illustrations came to life in front of me, and I was filled with terror. Not just scared but genuinely disturbed, like those creatures were going to follow me home if I stared at them for too long.
I loved the whole movie; from the small town late 60’s vibe down to the smallest spider filled pimple. I even loved the fact that it was PG 13, I don’t remember anything too gory or rough but I was petrified for the better part of two hours. If I had to find a complaint it would be the lack of 60’s Rock. The title song of “Season of the Witch,” by Donovan was the only one I heard.
But the segment that stood out most to me was “The Big Toe.” I don’t want to give too many spoilers here but let’s just say I almost vomited and I actually screamed (the little girl next to me had to calm me down).
I was running out of the theater in fear at the end of this movie, and nothing could have made me happier.
TAKE THREE: A THRILLING TRIBUTE TO THE BELOVED SOURCE MATERIAL
Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark is an absolutely terrifying take on the book series that frightened and captivated children’s imaginations for decades. The spooky and twisted tales within the pages have developed into a pop culture phenomenon and influenced the genre ever since. Witnessing these beloved tales being passionately and respectably projected onto the big screen, has helped provoke interest for generations to come.
The film is eerie and atmospheric, full of eye-popping fun and hair raising thrills.
It’s bursting with laughs and a truly awesome cast that really brings the screams. All the elements blend together perfectly — it’s the stuff of nightmares. Not often do they get things right, and this time, they did.
Produced by genre legend Guillermo Del Toro, and directed by André Øvredal (Troll Hunter 2010, The Autopsy of Jane Doe 2016), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an instant classic. The original illustrations leap off the page and onto the screen.
It’s a total blast. All the greats are represented. The Haunted House, The Big Toe, The Red Spot, and my personal favorite, Harold.
It’s cleverly woven fear, with seriously menacing visuals. SCARY STORIES is frightfully entertaining and an all around solid watch. Plus, the film comes with a rating fit for the entire family.
Be sure to catch it in theaters, if you’re not too scared that is.
TAKE FOUR: SCARIER THAN EXPECTED, IMMENSELY SATISFYING
By Jackie Ruth
Andre Ovredal’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a great adaptation of a beloved book series. As someone who grew up reading the Alvin Schwartz books (with Stephen Gammell illustrations!) — and someone who reread them a couple weekends ago — it was amazing to see the book’s monsters and ghouls come to life onscreen.
The movie’s narrative was far from perfect, and it had a lot of heavy-handed moments, but it made up for most of that with scares. And in the end, isn’t that all we wanted?
“Harold,” the story of a scarecrow come to life, was more terrifying than I could have imagined. The filmmakers build so much tension in each scene before a character is killed. Yes, there are jump scares, but they’re effective (with the exception of one), and they help break the aforementioned tension in those scenes.
Even as an adult, there were at least a handful of moments when I was afraid of what might come next, or grossed out by what was happening in a given scene.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is rated PG-13, and I could see older kids, especially those who like horror, enjoying it. But there was a child who couldn’t have been more than six years old sitting behind me in the theater, and I don’t know how he handled it.
It’s more intense than I expected.
My favorite thing about this film was the creature design.
It seemed that they used both practical effects and CGI to make the grotesque characters come to life. While I, like many horror fans, prefer the former in a lot of cases, the CGI wasn’t so overused that it detracted from the film. I’m also particularly impressed with how identical the three-dimensional versions of Harold, the pale-faced woman and the ghost missing her big toe were to Gammell’s two-dimensional drawings.
You could tell this movie was a labor of love for a lot of people working on it. And if you ask me, it paid off!
TAKE FIVE: THE MOST FUN YOU’LL HAVE RELIVING CHILDHOOD TRAUMA
By Joy Robinson
I absolutely loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when I was a kid. Along with Goosebumps, these books were as formative to nurturing my love for horror as any movie. I can remember my elementary school teacher reading these stories to the class and scaring the crap out of us. I remember hovering over the books in the school library, completely hypnotized by each horrifying tale. They shook me to my core, they kept me up at night, and I couldn’t get enough.
My excitement for the movie adaptation has been high ever since the first rumors started circling, and I’m happy to say it did not disappoint.
Watching this film made me feel like a kid again.
Stephen Gammell’s nightmarish illustrations are brought to life faithfully and beautifully. Part of what makes them so great is the use of practical effects and make-up and little reliance on CGI. This makes them look and feel disturbingly real.
According to writer/producer Guillermo del Toro, the monsters are 90% physical and 10% digital editing. Inside each of them is a real person. The most frightening example of this is The Jangly Man, an amalgam creation inspired by several of Alvin Schwartz’s original stories.
Real life contortionist Troy James brings this monstrosity to life brilliantly, and he’s definitely going to be haunting my nightmares for at least a month.
Though Scary Stories is directed by Andre Øvredal, del Toro’s presence is acutely felt throughout every aspect of the film.
A trademark of his storytelling is a focus on characters who are different — outcasts and outsiders. His characters in Scary Stories are prime examples of this. I have to admit that I saw something of my younger self in Stella: the quiet, weird girl who spends her time watching horror movies and creating stories that make the world seem bigger and more exciting than the small town she may never leave.
In Ramone, who understands on a much harsher level than Stella ever can what it’s like to be the odd one out, she finally meets someone who gets her.
Set in 1968, the film highlights the dark underbelly of small town life and the social climate of the times. Political uncertainty, the Vietnam War, and racism make up the backdrop of the setting. But the film also strikes the same nerve that makes Stranger Things so popular by offering up plenty of nostalgia for those who can remember a time before the internet (and for those who can’t but are fascinated by what must seem like archaic ways of life).
Stella and her friends communicate via walkie-talkie, watch Night of the Living Dead at a drive-in theater, and flip through dusty tomes of old newspaper clippings. The latter scene reminded me of another formative influence from my childhood, the movie Now and Then.
I remember being oddly fascinated watching the girls flip through huge leather-bound books of newspapers, trying to piece together a dark chapter of local history. I imagined myself and my friends doing the same, banding together in the back room of the library to solve a mystery. It seemed fun and exciting, and it still does, even with Google at my fingertips.
Needless to say, my thoughts about Scary Stories are subjective because they revolve wholly around how the movie made me feel. And it made me feel good.
Which might be strange, considering that the ending isn’t entirely happy. At some point during the film, I got the idea that everything was going to be okay: Stella and Ramone would solve the mystery, they would make everything right, all their friends who had become victims of these terrifying stories would be restored, and everyone would live happily ever after. I don’t know why I imagined this. I must be getting soft in my old age.
Because Scary Stories never had happy endings. That’s what set them apart from the likes of Goosebumps and ultimately made them more frightening. In R.L. Stine’s tales, the kids were usually okay in the end — a little traumatized, for sure, but they and their families and friends were able to go on with their lives in a relatively normal manner.
Scary Stories always ended with something horrible, a final lasting image to haunt your nightmares: a woman’s head falling from her shoulders onto the floor, an army of spiders emerging from a young girl’s face, children returning home to find that their mother has been replaced by a monstrous new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail.
Stella and Ramone do save the day but stop just short of happily ever after. That’s not a complaint.
Still, the film made me feel incredibly happy in a way that no film a while has done. It strikes all the right chords and made me feel like I was nine again, listening in suspense and excitement as my teacher read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
If you were a kid who loved these books even though they made you afraid to turn out the lights, all I can say to you is this: drop what you’re doing and go see this movie.
TAKE SIX: SURPRISINGLY STRONG BOOK TO FILM ADAPTATION
By Todd Reed
I was too old to have been frightened by these books when they were first published. The first came out in 1981, and I was already deeply into Stephen King, Richard Laymon, and Dean Koontz. I did discover them later with my children, though. Of course, they reminded me of my own “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” precursor, “The Thing at the Foot of the Bed and Other Scary Stories” which gave me no end of nightmares and probably started me down the horror path.
Produced by Guillermo Del Toro and directed by Andre Ovredal (who also directed the brilliant Trollhunter), “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a PG-13 horror entry that follows four teens as they venture into the local haunted house on Halloween night.
Legend has it that Sarah Bellows was hidden by her family and she would tell ghost stories to the kids through the walls. After discovering Sarah’s book in a hidden room, the teens soon learn the hard way that Sarah isn’t quite done telling stories…and her stories come true.
I went into this movie with fairly low expectations. While I love Guillermo Del Toro, I’ve been disappointed in some of the horror movies that he’s produced but not directed (Mama and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), and even the Del Toro-directed “Crimson Peak” left me cold (and not in a good way).
I came out of the movie pleasantly surprised.
Set in the late 1960s, the movie captures the era perfectly. While civil unrest and the war and Nixon’s election play out in the background on the news, small town life goes on, much as I remember my own childhood. The stories, while simple, are effective, and the script weaves them together very well. Ovredal ratchets up the tension beautifully and Mr X (which has worked on six of Del Toro’s films) provides some wonderful practical effects.
Though it sets up an obvious sequel, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” creates a solid stand alone film that is creepy enough to scare the younger horror fans and not bore their parents either.
TAKE SEVEN: NOSTALGIA DONE RIGHT WITH PITCH PERFECT EXECUTION
By Danni Darko
Getting my horror fix as a kid was not always easy. My older brother hoarded and hid his prized Fangoria magazines, and adults were not always keen on letting me watch folks get killed. But I loved it all, and it was only natural I eventually found Alvin Schwartz’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. These collections of short, disturbing folktales entertained and undoubtedly helped intensify my love for the genre.
Thirty-eight years after the first written volume of SCARY STORIES was released, fans now have the opportunity to watch some of their favorite tales unfold on the Big Screen thanks to Director André Øvredal and the team of talented writers (Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, Dan and Kevin Hageman) — and of course, Guillermo del Toro.
The monsters, the curses, the ghosts from so many of our childhoods have now been given cinematic credence by some of the best in the biz, and boy do they look awesome! The team behind the FX did an incredible job delivering creepy, living Stephen Gammell illustrations.
Instead of presenting the tales in an anthology, SCARY STORIES weaves the beloved written folklore into a cohesive narrative. A narrative that pays tribute to the classic collections while also adding thoughtful touches. I laughed, I reminisced, I thoroughly enjoyed the spooky tone.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK accomplished what the books did, in my opinion; it opened a door for countless new horror fans and this alone should be applauded.