Arriving just in time for the spooky season is director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo Del Toro’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a lovingly crafted adaptation of the iconic 1980s children’s book series of the same name.
Set against the backdrop of small-town America in 1968, the film follows a group of teenagers on Halloween night. After catching the ire of a local bully, friends Stella, Auggie, Chuck and loner Ramón are chased into the supposedly haunted Bellows mansion, where they learn the legend of the family that lived there at the turn of the century.
It’s said that young Sarah Bellows was kept in the basement of the house by her parents, where she wrote macabre stories of death that, unfortunately for the people in them, became true. Stella finds Sarah’s book and takes it home with her, where a phantom hand begins writing the stories again, in blood.
Øvredal is no stranger to genre film, and familiarity with his previous films Troll Hunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe makes it obvious why Del Toro brought him on board for this project. Øvredal brings a welcome European sensibility to the production, with great use of colour and shadow that builds atmosphere admirably. Del Toro’s own fingerprints can be seen all over the film, especially in the creature design, which brings the pages of the books to life as accurately as they are terrifying.
Infamous for its disturbing content and chilling illustrations, the Scary Stories series has long stirred up controversy as being inappropriate for children. This movie adaptation positions itself somewhere in between, aiming at kids and providing full strength, gory horror for the older patrons.
That’s not to say Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark condescends to its intended young adult audience. In what is seemingly a lost art these days, the filmmakers straddle the line between grades of horror expertly, creating an effective gateway of sorts to stronger material. There are plenty of moments here that are creepy enough to catch even the most jaded horror fans off guard, and traumatise very small children for life!
However, if you’re not a fan of jump-scares, you won’t be pleased by Scary Stories, as the film is brimming with ratcheting tension and loud sounds that’ll send your popcorn flying in every direction. The sound design is a big part of the film, and you’ll hear every scuttling spider and cracking bone in extreme, unsettling clarity.
The book series upon which Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based featured short stories collected into three volumes. In adapting the source material, this big-screen version doesn’t take the typical anthology-film approach by simply presenting each segment as unlinked entities. Instead, it employs the clever plot device of Sarah’s book to frame the narrative. It works well, allowing for each character to shine as they face their own fears in vignettes inspired by some of the most memorable tales from the books. It works almost like the Final Destination films, in that it builds an effective, ever-growing sense of dread in the audience as subsequent characters are taken out by evil forces one by one.
The young cast does a wonderful job, weaving together a likable, coherent ensemble that work well together, and you’re left wondering where the story will take them next. Yes, we’re left with a cliffhanger, but of course, there are plenty of scary stories left in the books if there happens to be a sequel in the future.
While there is some over-reliance on horror cliche, Øvredal and Del Toro know what they’re doing and lean into what may be considered shortcomings in the material in clever ways. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a love letter to the kinds of horror stories they grew up with as children, and as a result, makes for a perfect family outing to the cinema in the Halloween season. Just maybe leave the really little ones at home!