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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Review: A Perfect Adaptation of the Classic Novel

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Photo Courtesy of CBS Films

Written by Tom Moore

Horror holds a deep place in heart.

When I think back to where my love for genre began, it has to be with reading Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. While Goosebumps already had its turn to be adapted into film back in 2015, which I really enjoyed, and even had a sequel last year that I probably could’ve done without, I was eagerly waiting for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to get its chance for a big screen adaptation.

While it’s generally been considered for a book for children/young adults, Scary Stories always had that adult edge through its gruesome stories collected by Alvin Schwartz and the startling illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Every story had unique characters and monsters that would constantly scare readers and the series was even a guide for readers to tell scary stories of their own with little tips and direction for how to tell each story. It’s the kind of series that made you feel like more of an adult just from reading it and it was a strong part of how many people, including myself, were introduced to horror genre at a young age.

So, with the news that Trollhunter director Andre Ovredal and Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro were coming together to bring the book series to life on the big screen, this movie easily became one of my most anticipated for the summer – and it did not disappoint. 

Rather than make a simple anthology film or lift the stories straight from the page, Scary Stories is more like a fresh adaptation that’s inspired by the storytelling of the series. It both invokes nostalgic feelings in long-time fans and has enough horror to introduce younger viewers to the genre. It blows my mind how they’ve literally brought Gammell’s original illustrations to life through a mix of practical and special effects.

The similarities of Harold the Scarecrow and The Pale Lady to their literary counterparts are incredible with small details that make them unique for this adaptation. The second I first saw them come into frame I immediately had a grin on my face. The fact that they’ve taken simple black and white illustrations and created colorful and detailed re-imaginings shows the painstaking care that was taken to create an authentic look and that really pays off. Not to mention, the way they’re implemented into the story and have meaning in the character’s live is great. 

Each of the stories represented in the film are spread through a single narrative that focuses on a group of kids who find a book filled with stories from an evil witch that start to include stories about them. Personally, I think this premise works. It doesn’t break new ground for the genre or is the most original premise I’ve seen, but it allows for the iconic stories to fit more organically into one narrative. What also surprised me was how charming and interesting the group of kids were from the start – even if they are pretty much just tropes. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is the nerdy quiet girl, Ramone (Michael Garza) is the mysterious outsider, Chuck (Austin Zajur) is the comedic relief, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is the sensitive one, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) is the popular girl, and Tommy (Austin Abrams) is the bully. However, most of the time the characters were able to shed their trope-filled skins through charming dialogue and legitimately funny moments. 

The opening to the film, which is before any scary stories are introduced, is fantastic. We’re given a sense of everyone’s personalities and it was surprisingly funny to watch. As many times as the film has its tense and scary moments, there are just as many that are humorous as Chuck and Auggie provide some great one-liners. Even the relationship between Stella and Ramone is pleasant to see and they have certain qualities of their own that make them special. With Stella craving to be a writer, she embodies the film’s ideas about the power of storytelling and she’s a solidly capable final girl. However, her strong interest in the book does lead to some frustrating moments with her sense of enthusiasm rather than fear. With Ramone, there’s actually an interesting aspect to him that’s revealed later in the film that’s actually a reflection of the film’s 1968 setting. 

The film actually captures it’s Fall 1968 really well and it’s nice to see how things like the Vietnam War and drive-in theaters to create an authentic atmosphere and even having Donovon’s Season of the Witch play throughout the opening really sets a great tone for the film. Ovredal includes a nice nod to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and hearing Stella and Ramone talk about it being the best movie of the year is such a delightful moment.

There’s even a moment where Stella and Ramone are listening to an old recording and the sound and tone of the recording is straight from that era and it’s a very cool moment. However, Ovredal constantly has the camera flash to Nixon on different TV sets from time to time and sort of sets the groups journey to the election and politics, and it’s not clear  sure why. It’s as if he was attempting to say something or if it played an important part of the story, but I never really noticed any sort of connection, so it just came off as distracting and odd. 

What makes these characters really work, though, is how well they blend with the scary stories. It was great to see the stories that begin to haunt each character actually be a strong part of past stories in their lives. For some of the characters, they’ll reference and hint the story that will eventually plague them and it’s a nice way to connect the stories to the characters. There’s even some talk about the stories being childhood stories of their own and some of them even share the same names as characters from the original story.

However, as stated before, this film takes more inspiration for the stories rather than copy and paste them, so there are some nice variations and new takes on the stories that I really enjoy. From certain stories having different endings to settings and situations within the story having a different tone, Scary Stories aims to give fans a fresh experience that it mostly succeeds at. There’s even a new character, The Jangly Man, who Overdal introduces through an infamous story from the series and when the title flashed onto the cursed book, I literally gasped in excitement because it was a moment that really showed how the film finds a great balance to please long-time fans and offer something fresh for newcomers. 

The best thing about this adaption, though, is the Overdal still captures the series’ ability to create great moments of horror that are very creative for a PG-13 audience. It’s crazy how the film has plenty of gross and horrifying sequences without any blood or gore and treats its younger viewers with a little more maturity. There’s a lot of dark imagery that comes from each stories’ monster and what they do to their respective character that definitely pushes the envelope more than most PG-13 horror films would. The sequence with Harold the scarecrow will have you looking at hay differently and if you have arachnophobia, like me, then the “Red Spot” sequence will make your skin crawl.

Ovredal also creates a lot of suspense within each story and makes each story almost standalone through the aesthetics and tone of each sequence. Rather than just get to the scares as quickly as possible, he creates plenty of long-winded suspense that’s really effective in making viewer’s hearts beat faster. It even interesting to notice that each sequence within each of the stories shown has a unique location, colors, and even tone that makes each story stand alone in a way. Even with them being in one contained story, it was great to see them still represented in a self-contained fashion and it easily makes each sequence more memorable and unique.   

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is special in that it’s a perfect adaptation of the classic book series that’s creative in its horror and captures the spirit of the series. As long-time fan of the series, it’s refreshing to see one of my favorite childhood horror franchises be treated with such care and if the film’s teases for a sequel ever amount to anything, I’ll easily be heading back to the theaters to see more. If you’re looking for a new kind of horror movie to be a terrifying, fun ride or want to introduce someone younger to the horror genre, this is the perfect movie to see. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is now playing in theaters everywhere. 

Pop-Break Staff
Pop-Break Staffhttps://thepopbreak.com
Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.

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