I was always too chicken to get past even the cover of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a kid, and I’m not ashamed to say I still am now as a grown-ass adult. For a children’s horror book, Stephen Gammell’s legendary charcoal and ink illustrations reek of something sinister and forbidden, just abstract and off enough to tap into one’s fear of the eldritch uncanny and unknown, and you know, I’ve never wanted to mess with whatever narrative spookiness that artwork may be recounting. But eased in by the hands of producer Guillermo del Toro and director André Øvredal, I can say without any regret that the leap from page to screen of Scary Stories is a loyal, welcome, if slightly flawed adaptation of Schwartz and Gammell’s terrifying artistic visions.
Shades of ParaNorman and the 2015 Goosebumps movie are channeled into Scary Stories as aspiring high school writer Stella (Zoe Colleti), her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), and passing drifter Ramón (Michael Garza) unearth a hundred-year-old tome inside an equally dated manse on the outskirts of their small 1960’s middle-America town.
Belonging to Sarah Bellows, a local town legend and recluse responsible for the disappearances of several children, the antique book contains the fabled stories she would tell her victims before they went missing. The night after Stella opens the book, new stories containing people across town begin to write themselves onto the page, and soon enough, she and her friends find themselves in the middle of Sarah’s gruesome stories with no escape in sight.
The narrative of Scary Stories isn’t particularly fresh or innovative, but the stitching of Schwartz’s original short stories with the new base material works well, at least enough so it doesn’t leave you longing for the film to be a directly adaptive anthology piece. Colleti, Rush, Zajur, and Garza give good performances in the lead spots, injecting the solidly written characters with dramatic pathos and likeable personalities serving as the heart and soul of the film. Everyone is great, though Colleti and Garza stand out particularly as Stella and Ramón for being the ones who end up getting the most to work with and do in their respective character arcs.
Stella is a well-developed, three-dimensional character realistically brought to life by Colleti, and the ongoing mystery of Ramón’s intentions in town give the film a good amount of compelling mystery next to its satisfying dread and horror. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a bummer that his ultimate ending/resolution feels like a betrayal of everything leading up to it, especially with our retrospective outlook on the United States’ involvement in 1960’s Vietnam.
That’s sort of the only real problem with Scary Stories. The fantastic little horror sequences adapting Schwartz’s books feature unsettling imagery and beautiful practical creature effects right off of Gammell’s illustrations, but the thematic work incorporating them in is a little sloppy. Some are more than others—Ramón and a bully get some character-related substance tying them to their monsters—but I can’t help but wish the “stories” were integrated more directly into the characters’ backstories and with more narrative cohesion.
The film also says there are, but doesn’t really elaborate on its principal themes of storytelling being able to hurt and heal next to the oddly salient presence of the Vietnam War in the background. It’s nice the writers were aiming to give the thoroughly enjoyable horror fun some substance, but as a whole, the lack of development of its higher ambitions just keeps the good film from being something great.
A fresh recommend