You might have heard about the horror anthology Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark scaring up $20 million at the box office. Is it any good? It comes from Guillermo Del Toro and that raises expectations. With that, I’m here to tell you it’s worthy of his Oscar-winning name if subdued when it comes to his style.
When a Halloween prank gets them in trouble, three trick-or-treaters and one drive-in moviegoer pulled into the fold (Michael Garza) end up trapped in a haunted house. After escaping with a cursed book of chilling tales by local urban legend Sarah Bellows, stories write themselves into reality, manifesting as creatures ripped from the original book series that stalk and claim the cast until only two are left to end the terror.
Among the spooky beings are a battered scarecrow out for revenge, a corpse missing a toe in a pot of stew, a spider bite that explodes, a rotund grinning woman in a red room, a dismembered monster after a victim in police lock-up, and the white witch Sarah Bellows herself.
Instead of the typical anthology format of autonomous narratives connected by one or a group of storytellers, a la The Twilight Zone, Scary Stories picks a mode that’s been in vogue in horror for a decade or more. All the stories are pieces in a much larger one revolving around the four main characters.
The movie plays like Goosebumps in that way although it doesn’t overtly tip its hat to the author (Alvin Schwartz) and leans way harder into the horror. For a PG-13 aiming at a younger crowd, there are really grotesque moments of body horror packing a greater punch than you’d expect — especially the segments with Harold the scarecrow from the movie’s poster and the nightmare-fueling Jangly Man.
Del Toro produces, as he did for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and puts the film in the hands of Norway’s André Øvredal. His talents are put to good use. Øvredal directed two of the best-reviewed genre movies of the last decade — the found-footage Trollhunter and the minimalist-but-slick Autopsy of Jane Doe starring Brian Cox (X2) — so he knows how to deal with monsters and atmosphere. He makes the most of his settings and light; shadows become as creepy as the monsters themselves. And some scenes are so tense, I looked away (which doesn’t happen much).
Any horror movie or thriller is only as strong as its lead and if you care about them. Zoe Colletti as final-girl Stella Nichols gives the events a firm center and is quite invested in the proceedings. Her ability is reminiscent of the kids in IT and Danielle Harris in Halloween 4 and 5. Stella’s backstory is paper-thin and her dad (Dean Norris) is there and gone, but the character feels deep and corporeal, adding real weight.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark kicks off the late-summer horror cycle that bleeds into October and it’s a great way to ring it in. Del Toro and Øvredal remain consistent, elevating a minor youngins’ book series that was almost forgotten to a level of true horror. It’s a shame this wasn’t the team behind Hellboy.
- Zoe Colletti.
- Creature design.
- Individual stories and direction.
- The exact circumstances of Stella's grief and alienation are never explained.
- Bullies and authority figures are mean without much motivation.
- The setting is the 1970s which only helps two aspects of the plot. Otherwise, it's insignificant.