As a child, going to the school library and checking out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz was a right of passage. The chillingly inventive stories with their terrifying illustrations were a spooky hit among sleepovers and children’s parties.
Now, 39 years after the first book of the trilogy was published, Andre Ovredal has directed, alongside a screenplay from Guillermo Del Toro, a film adaptation of the haunting children’s book series, but the film proves scary for more than just children.
The film follows a group of children who, on Halloween, break into an old haunted house to show their new friend the scary story and legend of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), a woman who told scary stories to children through her wall and then allegedly murdered them. When Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) finds Sarah’s book, her group of friends is forced to face the wrath and chaos of Sarah’s scary stories.
For the children who read the stories, seeing the illustrations and the creepy tales brought to life is a childhood nightmare. It’s incredible to watch the drawings that were already prime nightmare fuel come to life in an even more terrifying way. With the expectation of a scary film made for children, the film is a pleasant surprise for the regular horror genre.
The strength of the film is in the stories. The film does a great job at creating characters that humanize the stories and weave the collection of tales together, which provides a certain depth that the short tales lacked. If there’s any one overarching critique of the film, it’s that they could have leaned even heavier into the stories.
The film has a great, fresh-faced cast of young actors who do a great job with their roles, especially those who are the subjects of the stories, most notably August (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). When the characters the audience care about start becoming the subjects of the stories, it becomes a race to figure out how to stop them from happening.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does a great job of letting the audience —and the characters — figure the horror rules of the film out as it goes on, which explains things clearly without explicitly having to say it. With Tommy’s (Austin Abrams) story being the first, the audience kind of sees it coming and frankly doesn’t care. August, however, is one of the main characters in the friend group, and he’s someone the audience loves.
Prior to August’s storyline, the audience doesn’t know the rules of the stories or what is going to happen to those involved. They just know it isn’t going to be good. August not only has one of the most tense scenes but lays the groundwork for figuring out the rules of the stories and inspires the other kids to try and stop them from happening.
The film also features heavy social themes, which is a slightly unexpected aspect of the film. However, with Del Toro penning the script, it’s no surprise there are some large scale issues like the government, racism and the draft, along with smaller scale issues, like corrupt town adults and absent parents.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a great introduction to the horror genre for younger people, but it’s not limited to a children’s horror movie, and, with the social issues, tense scenes and captivating stories, it’s a great horror film to watch at any age.