I love scary stories. I grew up on ghost stories and campfire tales. What I usually avoid are scary movies because I tend to be more scared seeing a scary movie, but this movie is one of my rare exceptions for a couple of reasons. One, my husband read the stories as a kid and really wanted to see this one. Second, the director Andre Ovredal and Producer Guillermo Del Toro. I knew from those names that there would be an excellent chance this movie was going to be good. It is all about the power of stories and in the execution, this film masterfully illustrates that power. While I was scared, I also loved the story, loved the pacing and effects, the mood, and how well the ending comes together.
In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz, it is 1968 and in the small town of Mill Valley, the shadow of the Bellows family looms large. Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of stories. A group of teenagers discovers a terrifying secret in their mansion at the edge of town. Stella (Zoe Colletti) along with her friends, Chuck (Austin Zajur), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and visitor Ramon (Michael Garza) head to the mansion on Halloween but there they find a book. Stella takes the book but as she reads it, she finds the stories coming to life. As the teenagers find out, joined by Chuck’s sister Ruth (Marie Ward), they can’t escape the stories and one by one their fears come to life.
Stories can harm, stories can heal. If you tell them enough, they become real. This is the phrase repeated in the movie and with good reason. The theme of the film is that stories have the power to be real. In weaving together multiple stories from the books, that idea is explored throughout the movie as the young teenagers find them pulled into the stories from the book and can’t escape. To me, that is one of the most terrifying concepts, that a story can be real. But that is the genius of the theme. We know that stories are part of the human condition. We tell stories to help, heal, harm, and explore what it means to be human. Horror is often told as a way to explore frightening ideas in a safer place and that is exactly what the film does, bring us a story to explore the idea of what is real and not in a film.
For me, this was a spooky, creepy and at times downright frightening. Even my husband who is jaded to horror movies and wanted to see this film got startled by one of the jump scares. The reason for this is because of the masterful building of the suspense and tension. The story builds slowly but quickens until it crescendos at the end. One of the ways this is managed is by the skillful use of lighting, music, and effects to create a spooky atmosphere. There are sounds for each of the creatures that just build the effect in the film. One of the songs is the creepiest song I’ve heard and took me halfway through the film to realize where I’d heard it before. It really lends itself well and keeps you on the edge of your seat. All of the work is just phenomenal.
Besides the atmosphere in the movie, it is the special effects that really help with the supernatural feel of the film. The design of each of the monsters is everything I would expect from anything Guillermo Del Toro is involved in and each monster is unique in design. They are chilling and ominous in their makeup, the actors behind the monsters doing a fantastic job of embodying that creature. The makeup is outstanding and it would not be nearly as good a film without the excellent work.
Another factor in how well the story moves is the acting. Zoe Colleti as Stella is believable as a young girl distant from her peers, as a writer but more importantly, the actress is emotional and strong in her acting. Austin Zajur as Chuckie and Gabriel Rush as Auggie are both funny, engaging, and fearful at all the right times. The dynamic between friends makes you like them immediately. We also get a strong performance from Michael Garza as Ramon. His character is traveling through town when he meets the trio and the actor does build some great tension and believable chemistry between him and Zoe Colleti. Marie Ward has some great presence, especially when her character encounters her fears. In addition to the young actors, the adults in the film add layers. Dean Norris plays Stella’s concerned father. Gil Bellows plays the skeptical police chief well.
The film does not develop new ideas. It does use many of the ideas from the original books and horror stereotypes. But the execution of those ideas is masterfully developed. All of the different types of monsters bring such a creepy feel to the film that it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen similar monsters or ideas before. Even knowing the scares are coming doesn’t stop them from being eerie and spine chilling.
While the stories aren’t new, they do bring to life the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the books that so many people loved, including my husband. If you were a fan of those books or love the uncanny idea of stories becoming real, I feel you will love this movie. I will admit, I was scared during this film and my husband found it disturbing. While not everyone may find it equally scary, the ideas of stories being corporal will intrigue fans of the horror genre. I loved it, even as goosebumps prickled along my skin and I wonder if I’ll sleep tonight.