Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light!

When my class had library periods in elementary school, back in the late nineties/early 2000’s, there was one book series that had a waiting list – the Scary Stories books by Alvin Schwartz. Whispers of the terrifying stories and the even more petrifying illustrations (by Stephen Gammel) rippled rampantly through my peers, with many claiming that they had trouble sleeping at night after reading such creepy tales.

When I finally got my hands on the books they did not disappoint, and many of the stories – and legendary artwork – have stuck in my mind and sent shivers down my spine years and years afterward. So when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation, produced by Guillermo del Toro, I was hoping to see the monsters from my childhood come to life.

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_film_logoSet in a small Pennsylvania town in the fall of 1968, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark follows a group of teenagers who accidentally incur the wrath of the spectral Sarah Bellows after removing her book of “scary stories” from the basement of a haunted house on Halloween night. They must find a way to appease Sarah, or become the stars of their own scary stories…with less than pleasant endings.

Since the original books are more or less anthologies featuring ghost stories, cautionary tales, and folklore, the film isn’t a straight-up adaptation. Instead, references are peppered throughout an over-arcing narrative that has been constructed for the film, and many of the most memorable “monsters” and stories make appearances with clear inspiration from Gammel’s original artwork. It’s a decision that works well, because fans of the books get to see characters like “Harold” and experience some of the best tales, with some fresh twists, while the unfamiliar can follow along without feeling lost.

The film employs familiar tropes connected to the horror genre – jump scares, a jarring neck snap or two, straw-spewing, the usual – but it manages to balance telling a well-paced story for the uninitiated while also aiming to please fans of the books. The music builds tension where it needs to without being overwhelming, which can be difficult in films where sound is so critical to the atmosphere. 

The plot – a group of teens aiming to appease a vengeful spirit of sorts or face untimely or maybe even slightly comical deaths – isn’t unfamiliar, but it works, mainly because it never tries to break the boundary and veer into “too much” territory. The cast function like a slightly more sinister version of the Scooby Doo crew, and though some receive more development than others, it’s easy to feel and empathize with the characters as their lives spiral into chaos and their friends start dropping like flies. Sure, the film doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of horror. It’s not Hereditary, or Get Out, or A Quiet Place. But it doesn’t have to be – and it’s easy, while watching it, to forget that certain features and characters are gleaned from a series of books intended for children.

Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not super scary, earning a PG-13 rating. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump in my seat a few times, and I’m not easily swayed by the genre, so even if it is a bit tamer than horror films with a higher rating, it can definitely frighten children and might lead to some sleepless nights, though fans of the books may be more affected by the scares than others. Seriously… The Pale Lady was terrifying in the book, and she’s just as scary onscreen, especially knowing that she was created using practical effects. 

If a spooky night at the theater is what you’re after, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a solid choice – not too scary, not too long, and not too much.

Overall rating: 8/10

Scary Neighbor Lady

A few years ago, the trick-or-treat night in my neighborhood fell on an evening in which my last college class for the day ended at 6:30 PM. I lived alone at the time, and, as bad as it makes me sound, I had no interest in participating in trick-or-treat. I usually just turn the lights off so the folks walking around with their kids will know not to ring the doorbell. But, since I’d forgotten that I would be pulling into my driveway right smack in the middle of the event, I feared that I would have to suffer through being pestered by eager children hankering for some sugar. Plus, I had no candy in the house, though I did have plenty of carrot sticks, which are not generally a hit with the youth.

Nevertheless, I heated up some microwaveable macaroni and cheese for dinner (I was the pinnacle of health in those days), set up camp in my kitchen, and started to pound out my homework for the night. My computer was located in my kitchen nook, which was, unfortunately, positioned right next to a window. Therefore, from the right angle, the passing groups of ravenous candy-seekers could likely see me sitting there. I was absolutely certain that my doorbell would ring at least a few times and I would either have to ignore it, or tell the poor little ghosts, witches, and Iron Men that I had nothing to give them.

I sat, ate my dinner, and worked on an essay about the movie I’d just seen in film class. Through the window, I could see the kids walking about, going door to door, their laughter and cheer muffled through the pane. Reveling in their Three Musketeers, Hershey Bars, Skittles, and my personal favorite, Bottle Caps. Yet, though I expected it, not a single child rang my doorbell.

My porch light was on (I used to turn it on before I left the house for late classes, and had done so out of habit earlier that day) and I was plainly visible through the kitchen window, eating mac n’cheese and typing away at my desktop, and still, no one rang my doorbell.

In an attempt to pinpoint the reason why the neighborhood folks would be avoiding my house, since I was a relatively reclusive neighbor and spoke only to the people who lived to the right of me and the family across the street (the family across the street were GREAT neighbors and gave me free firewood during Snowtober in ’11,) I remembered an instance where, after seeing some of the neighborhood kids playing in my yard without permission, I yelled at them out the window to, essentially, “Get off my lawn.” There was a sort of “drop-off” in the yard marked with stones that was all-too-easy to tumble off and cause injury, which I did not want to be held accountable for. I mean, I could have been nicer about it or chosen some gentler phrasing, but if you’re gonna get kids who aren’t related to you and who are blatantly ignoring your property line in the first place to listen to you, you gotta be firm. At my behest, they scattered like the soot sprites in My Neighbor Totoro, and I never had to yell at them again. 

I suppose, at that time, I did not realize the toll my reprimand would have on my neighborly reputation. On that chilly October night, as all of the trick-or-treaters avoided my stoop, I came to realize that I had, in the eyes of a humble New England neighborhood, become the Scary Neighbor Lady.

But, instead of lamenting this, I decided to embrace it. So what if I could strike fear into the hearts of children with one bellow of “GET OFF MY LAWN!”? I’d never actually harm a kid, so I figured I might as well embrace my new reputation and use it to my advantage instead of trying to change it.

Although I never had to yell at the neighborhood kids again, they did end up fooling around in my yard one more time that I can recall, only it was the front yard instead of the back. My car was in the garage at the time, so they likely thought I wasn’t home. There’s a stone-lined drop-off onto my driveway that, if a child had fallen off, could cause pretty serious injury, so I definitely didn’t want them playing out there unsupervised. But before I could open the window to say anything to them, I met the gaze of one of the kids through the windowpane, and saw his eyes go wide with terror. I sharpened my glare, and that was enough. He motioned to his comrades to flee, and they sprinted away from my house and down the street, to play in some other neighbors yard, I assume.

I’ve since moved away, and have no such reputation in my current residence, but I like to think I’ve become an urban legend at my old stomping grounds, and that on trick-or-treat nights, the neighborhood kids still refuse to stop at “Scary Neighbor Lady’s” house.

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If you’re in need of a new read, check out my YA novel, I’m With You! The ebook is only $1.99 or (£1.55) and paperback is $9.99 (£7.99) on Amazon Amazon UK.  Paperback is also $9.99 on BN.com.