A creepy throwback.
I wonder what kind of childhood Guillermo del Toro had? The creatures that he comes up with for his movies and television shows suggest his childhood was…not good? Haunted? Disturbed? When I found out he was involved with the making of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I immediately nixed the idea of taking my seven-year old son to see it. My son has never had night terrors and I don’t want to start them with this flick.
For anyone who read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when they were kids, finding out they made a movie should confuse you. The book is an anthology of disconnected, very short stories, so how exactly does that become a coherent, feature-length movie? As it turns out, the writers (six of them, including the original author of the book, Alvin Schwartz) basically kept the book intact, putting it into the film as an evil talisman. The plot itself is standard scary movie fare – one member of the group of kids activates the murderous ghost and they are killed off one-by-one. The scary stories tell the ways in which each of the kids dies. It’s so easy it would be comical if this weren’t a horror flick.
The legend in the film is about a girl named Sarah Bellows, who was kept in a windowless room by her family and passed the time by writing scary stories in her book. Our main character, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), recites the myth while exploring the old Bellows house with her two friends, Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur), as well as Ramon (Michael Garza), a young man who helped them evade their bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams). Stella concludes her telling of the myth by stating that if someone asks Sarah to read them a story, it’s the last story they ever hear. After finding Sarah’s book of scary stories, Stella asks Sarah just that because she is an aspiring horror writer. Or just because. It isn’t really clear, but this is a horror movie and someone has to do the thing that wakes up the ghost.
As horror movies go, Scary Stories is one of the better ones I have seen lately because it manages to make that standard formula scary again. Mostly, this has to do with del Toro’s creepy imagination. All of Sarah’s stories are pulled from Schwartz’s original writings and del Toro and the writing crew adapt them into living nightmares. Each of the five kids, plus Chuck’s sister (Natalie Ganzhorn), are all on Sarah’s hit list because all of them were in the house when Stella said the phrase that pays. Each story has the potential to freak you out, depending on what things hid under your bed when you were a kid (or an adult). A scarecrow, spiders, a deformed woman appearing no matter which hallway you run down – there’s something for everyone.
And what scary movie isn’t complete without the group trying to figure out a way to thwart the ghost before they all die? We’re on the clock, so the remaining kids race to find a solution or at least understand what motivates Sarah. You’ve seen this plot a hundred times and it works well this time because the filmmakers never get lazy or rush through anything. Being methodical about each story increases the tension of the film precisely because we can almost feel the clock running out on the kids.
Even though the formula makes the movie fairly predictable, it works because of the individual stories. Within the film’s overarching plot, each story still feels like its own thing, reminding you of the fun of reading lots of different stories. The film wisely doesn’t try to tie any of the individual creatures to Sarah or her family or even to each other, which would have made the movie much more trite and much less fun. Another wise move was setting the film in the 1960s, which does away with most modern technology, removing the potential plot holes that come along with them.
If it isn’t clear by now, I really enjoyed this film. It was creepy, it was tense, and it was a reminder that del Toro still has a lot left in the tank. In his creepy, disturbing tank.
Rating: Do not ask for any money back and don’t think about whether you remembered to shut the closet door.