Often times, the most effective horror stories are short and sweet. A short-running length allows the story to take precipice, and not rely so much on character building to keep an audience involved. It's a different and often risky approach, but when it works it can be some of the most effective storytelling. When this happens in the horror world, the author allows the reader to plunge head-first into a terrifying situation, often with what seems to be a series of unfortunate timing and a bit of surreal randomness. Although not always the case, this sometimes can let the audience envision themselves as the characters within instead of trying to make them relate to the characters. And it's always a different matter when you can feel scared for somebody else rather than when you can feel scared for yourself.
In the 1980's, author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell brought a great collection to life; horror anthologies that were crafted for a younger generation. Relying heavily on common folklore and urban legends, they easily held up over the test of time by using the same stories that have themselves passed on through time. As we have seen, these stories don't lose their fear over time, and in some cases they even transform themselves to remain relevant by today's standards. Fear is an ever growing beast and most of these stories brush upon the most basic and primal gossip each culture and generation has continued to pass down.
I grew up in the 90s, and like many others, I purchased this trilogy of books at my school Book Fair due to the graphic and scary nature of the artwork. The stories were even more alarming when accompanied by the pictures, and when I accidentally got a copy of the first book on audio cassette, the Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker story legitimately scared me for years. It was one story I listened to with my friends that caused us to cancel the sleepover. This series, along with the Goosebumps series, operated as my gateway entry into the world of terror entertainment.
Director André Øvredal, along with the help of producer Guillermo Del Toro, brought these literary works to the big screen. Instead of presenting a regular horror anthology format, they took the big screen Goosebumps adaptation approach by giving us a compelling wrap around story that encompasses the actual film, while sneakily giving us the short stories as their own stand out features when the time came. Before our very eyes we watch as these short stories come to life one at a time to haunt our protagonists.
The wraparound story takes place in 1968 and revolves around Stella who is a young girl trying to enjoy her Halloween night with her friends Auggie and Chuck. When a bully falls victim to their counter-prank he chases them off, and they then meet a young man named Roman who quickly becomes part of their crew. He is notably more mature than them, and he has a car. In an effort to lay low, Stella proposes that they go to a real haunted house where local legend tells of a woman named Sarah Bellows who kidnapped and possibly murdered local children while simultaneously writing and reading them scary stories. Those same stories are the ones being brought to horrifying life when her personal book is found and brought home by Stella. When she first tries to read them, she is a bit confused when she realizes a majority of its pages are blank. But on that first night she witnesses as a story seemingly writes itself into existence. It becomes all the more terrifying when these stories seem to directly name her and her friends, but it gets even worse when she realizes they are protruding out from the realm of fiction.
The idea of bringing these stories together in this format, rather than as a straight forward anthology, was a great idea. It allows each story to have its chance to shine without feeling rushed to conclude so another can begin. They are nicely paced, essentially happening one night after another. The stories they chose to use were good choices (which I will not spoil by detailing here), and the creators kept true to their promise of honoring the original illustrations when they brought the monsters to life through a combination of (just about 95%) practical makeup and (roughly only 5%) CGI effects.
The characters are believable and lovable, with the exception of the bully who does a great job of making you hate him. The music is very fitting for the atmosphere, the dialogue has enough heart to make you laugh in between the darkness, and the story has a great deal of resolution to close any loose ends. They did leave room for a sequel (which I'm sure we'll be getting eventually), but the story bodes well as a stand-alone entry. With three full-length collections to choose from though, it's not hard to imagine a new script being written already.
It's a heartfelt story showcasing the emotions and challenges of adolescence, especially when you're pegged to be a weirdo with niche interests. Stella was a nerd for the horror community, and she was targeted due to this. However, by the end of the film she has learned her current place in life, and channels her curiosity and fear into written form to not only help others and herself, but to keep the legends rolling with better context than they previously were alloted with. Like most horror at its core, this is a story about facing your fears. It's also a story about how seemingly harmless legends can have serious, life-altering consequences - sometimes to the point of fatality. In a day and age where we as a culture embrace social media and use that as a direct means of spreading information, this is a lesson that hits hard and shouldn’t be overlooked.
My only complaints on this film lie in two simple departments: A.) the first 3rd of the film is physically dark to see, and I mean really dark. It was a bit hard to even tell what I was looking at during the ‘Halloween Night’ scene although I was able to keep up with the story. & B.) The trailers honestly spoiled what could have been very fun surprising monster moments. I will agree though that this problem is on the hands of the promotion team and not on the filmmakers themselves, and it also does not really deter from the fun horror within.
In Conclusion: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun horror film with an Amblin-like feel that makes it something you could watch with the whole family. Although there are some mature and dark elements (and I didn't know we were killing children in this film), it's nothing worse than the violence within Gremlins or even the later Harry Potter series. It remains true to the original content while giving it an original story that serves as the backbone of the entire piece. A clever balance of humor and mature elements make this easy to digest and operate as a gateway for younger fans to go into the foray of horror.
Did I enjoy it on my first visit? Very much so.
Would I go back for seconds? Indeed. It is a film I intend to purchase when it is released, although I will admit that it's not one on my immediate "need to own" list. I'd wait for a price drop personally, but it certainly merits a revisit.
Would I recommend it? Yes. This is a film that I was excited for, and I definitely left the theatre feeling fulfilled. I'm curious and excited to see what a sequel would continue to do with this series, and I welcome it.
Final Rating: 4/5
'Til Next Time, Mike Cleopatra