A collection of eerie folk tales compiled by Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was one of the more sinister tomes to sneak its way into Scholastic book fairs.
The bite-sized bits of horror inside are best told around a campfire – or perhaps, read furtively in one of the darker corners of a schoolyard – so bringing their particular brand of magic to the big screen must have been a daunting task. But Stephen Gammell’s hallucinatory black-and-white illustrations begged to come alive – which they do quite convincingly in director André Øvredal’s Guillermo Del Toro-produced film adaptation.
The tales are tied together, appropriately, by a ghost story. Years ago, legend has it, a disturbed young horror writer (Sarah Bellows, the disgraced daughter of a wealthy family) died in an insane asylum. Decades later, a group of teens find themselves locked in the abandoned Bellows house on Halloween night, where they make the mistake of reading from Sarah’s book. Soon enough, new stories are being written before their eyes as Sarah’s horrific creations come to life.
Gammell’s motley crew of spectres are gorgeously rendered, from the first stilted steps of a sadistic scarecrow to a cabal of delightfully disgusting spiders, zombies, and witches. The climax of “Harold” is unexpectedly grisly, with a teenage bully undergoing a horrific transformation in a deserted cornfield. “The Red Spot,” which sees thousands of baby spiders bursting through an inflamed boil, is delightfully disgusting, and darkly funny segment “The Big Toe” pays homage to Schwartz’s hushed storytelling. (The print version included instructions on how to best deliver the story for maximum shock value; here, the action unfolds as prospective victim reads the tale aloud). The film’s most disturbing sequence is “The Red Room,” in which a character is stalked by a bloated witch who seems to block his escape no matter what direction he turns.
The suspense builds steadily with each tale, reaching its peak when “The Jangly Man” arrives, one body part at a time, inside the county jail where our heroes are imprisoned, contorting itself into bizarre angles to force itself through the bars of a holding cell.
Scary Stories is a visual feast, and script from Dan and Kevin Hageman presents compelling emotional stakes (an impressive feat for what is essentially an anthology film). The film’s young protagonists are likeable and fairly well-developed – particularly Shelley, a lonely aspiring writer still haunted by her mother’s abandonment, and Ramon, an unassuming draft dodger who drifts into town. (The Vietnam-era setting adds a palpable sense of inevitable doom to the proceedings). I also was surprised by how many of the film’s heroes meet grim fates.
The ending of the film admittedly falls a bit flat, wrapping up the story without any real sense of closure. But all in all, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark provides a satisfying ghost story with some genuinely frightening scenes, even if it doesn’t quite capture the core mystery of the books – that oppressive sense that there could be any number of malevolent beings watching us the shadows, just waiting for us to turn off the light.
Title: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Screenwriter: Dan and Kevin Hageman