The illustrations were the scariest part.
Author Alvin Schwartz’s prose in the 1980s and ’90s kids horror trilogy Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was scary, but it was Stephen Gammell’s runny, Rorschach test-like drawings were terrifying. They almost bled off the page into young readers’ dreams, where the books’ monsters plagued the imagination of a generation. Even sleeping with your head under the covers felt like it wouldn’t save you.
Almost 40 years after the series’ initial release, and with its original audience fully into adulthood, those drippy, phantasmagoric characters are still hard to forget. Now, they’re coming for us again.
That’s courtesy of director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) and cowriter/producer Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water). Set in 1968, the film unleashes several of Schwartz’s gruesome short stories on the fictional town of Mill Valley, Pa., in something of a bloated, meandering plot device that ties the tales together.
And Gammell’s illustrations are still the scariest part.
On Halloween night, protagonist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti, Wildlife) breaks into a mansion on the edge of town with a group of teenage friends, and they steal a book of scary stories that formerly belonged to Sarah Bellows, a purported child murderer. After they make off with the book, new stories starring Stella and her friend group begin appearing on its pages, signaling certain doom.
That plot device bogs the film down, and causes pacing issues that a straight horror anthology format may have alleviated. The movie itself is something like a cross between the recent screen adaptations of Goosebumps and It with a dash of Stranger Things’ proclivity for nostalgia thrown in. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does feel contrived, and balloons the movie’s runtime to an overlong 1 hour, 47 minutes with plenty of filler.
Still, Scary Stories readers will recognize and appreciate classic tales like “Harold,” “The Dream,” and “The Red Spot,” plus a few others, amid the movie’s framing. Jump scares are the film’s most-used horror device, but it does feel like Øvredal and del Toro are pushing the envelope of the film’s PG-13 rating with how creepy some of the stories get.
That’s mostly thanks to the filmmakers’ adherence to illustrator Gammell’s depiction of Scary Stories’ monsters, presented well via practical effects. The movie’s take on “The Dream" uses a creepily realistic take on that story’s rotund, smirking villain, as if Gammell’s drawing leaped off the page. The murderous, mush-faced scarecrow in the film’s “Harold” section is similarly well-done in that it is true to the book’s illustrations. “The Jangly Man,” which appears to be based in part on the book’s “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker,” is the film’s best moment, and offers a great combination of body and psychological horror.
The human characters in the movie frequently come off as flat, and seem only to be there to bridge the gap between stories without much development. Scary Stories is, however, advertised as a “family horror movie,” so maybe some simplicity is to be expected.
Despite those shortcomings, Scary Stories manages to do well by its source material and offers a few genuine scares to boot — especially for the new, young horror fans at which the film is targeted. But, unlike with the books, don’t expect this one to keep you up at night.
Directed by André Øvredal. With Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Dean Norris. Distributed by CBS Films.
Run time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references).