Horror is a genre often thought to mostly enjoyed by adults. However, I was a kid that grew up loving everything horror. In fact, I can blame my fear of clowns growing up on watching IT as a child. It was around the 80s and early 90s when media companies started to take notice and produce horror content for kids. One of the first series of books, that I can remember, to do this was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It was written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. What made these books so great, and controversial, was the nightmare-inducing artwork as well as the gruesome content within the stories.
Skip forward nearly forty years later and Hollywood has decided to adapt these series of stories into a film of the same name directed by André Øvredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro. If you remember, Goosebumps attempted to do the same thing but the films fell flat, unfortunately. It’s difficult to create a horror film aimed at kids while still continuing to hold true to the source material. Does Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark succeed where Goosebumps failed?
The film takes place in a small American town during Halloween of 1968. Along the way, they find an old book said to belong to a local witch of legend named Sarah Bellows. They unknowingly release a curse that targets her group of friends, and unless they can uncover the mystery surrounding the town and the Bellows family, they’re all doomed to the wrath of the curse.
WARNING: The following tags contain spoilers so if you’re not interested in knowing what happens in the film, skip it.
I found the story of the film to be entertaining and enjoyable. It really is a movie made for the fans of the books as the concept of the various monsters and stories seems to be where most of the work was put in. The main concept and plot of the film have been done before, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. There’s enough of a difference that I could enjoy it for what it was and not feel like I need to overanalyze it afterward. After all, the books were written for middle school-aged children, so to expect anything more from the film adaptation isn’t feasible.
A nerdy high school girl who is fond of horror movies and writing. She seems to know a great deal about the Sarah Bellows legend and is thrilled when she initially finds her book. Her mother left her and her father alone, and she makes sure he is cared for.
A drifter who is just passing through town. He helps protect the group from Tommy, but only because he has his eyes for Stella. The two of them share a fascination with horror movies and quickly bond over the course of the film. It is unknown, at first, what he’s running from but there is a sense that he’s hiding something.
One of Stella’s best friends. He’s mischievous and likes to tease the others. Although, deep down he cares for his friends and sister, even if he does enjoy pestering her.
Local pretty girl and the lead of the high school musical. She initially is going out with Tommy, but she dumps him after he attempts to lock her brother and his friends in a basement. She worries about her brother, despite him being a pain.
The nice guy of the group, Auggie is Stella’s other best friend. He and Chuck seem really close and even argue like an old married couple. He is the counter to Chuck’s trickster ways and serves as the voice of reason.
He is the school bully and seems to be one of their biggest athletes, based on his letterman jacket. He is attracted to Ruth but pushes her away with his constant bullying and immature antics. It seems like he’s been bullying the main group all of their lives, which is why they seek revenge against him.
All of the characters, aside from Ramón, are pretty standard teen slasher tropes. However, the director did a good job fleshing out their personalities and building up a connection with each of them. Some of it was a little cliche, like really making Tommy unlikable so the audience would hate him and feel good about any misfortunes that came his way. However, the characters of Chuck and Auggie served as welcomed comic relief and made you care what happened to them. Stella, unlike many “main girls,” didn’t come across as self-righteous or one-dimensional.
Ramón was really the breakout character for me. Through him, the audience experiences what it was like for Latino people back in the 60s. As a Hispanic man, I feel like our people’s struggles don’t get featured enough in films, but Guillermo Del Toro is great about Latino and Hispanic representation in his films. Because of his race, the local cops treat him like a criminal while Tommy refers to him as a “wet back,” a vile derogatory name for Mexican people. Serving as one of the main heroes really struck a chord with me, and It’s great to see more Latinx/Hispanic characters like him on screen. It was also great that they didn’t give him an accent or include any stereotypes in his character.
I found this to be one of the strongest points of the film. I think the shots were done well and did a good job of inciting fear. Everything looked clean and polished, as you would expect from a big-budgeted film. The CGI was decent for most of the film, but the Jangly man felt a little too fake and comedic. Most of the other creatures were just as unsettling as they were in the books, and I think they did an amazing job translating them into the film. I was a bit disappointed that Harold wasn’t utilized more, as that was my favorite story in the books, but that’s more a personal nitpick than anything.
Nothing stood out to me as far as the soundtrack went. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t anything groundbreaking. However, there was one scene where one of the characters is being pursued in a hospital and I felt the soundtrack really made the scene. No matter where they turned the creature was right there, and the hospital’s siren sounded the entire time. It was of the more unsettling scenes because it gave you this sense of claustrophobia and helplessness.
I’ve stated previously that this film doesn’t break any new ground on the horror genre. Others have echoed this sentiment, and it is absolutely true. However, I don’t necessarily think that was necessary. Not every film needs to be a pioneer and set things in a new direction. Striving for innovation for the sake of innovation can take a good concept and completely ruin it. Sometimes, it’s nice to sit down and watch a movie without having to critically think about its deeper meaning.
As I said before, this film was made for fans of the book. It was a passion project, and we should remember the intended audience. I felt, for a PG-13 rated horror film, it did a great job with creating legitimately creepy scenes. Of course, adults who watch blood and gore-filled scenes will probably be unaffected by this film, but that’s not the target audience. The books were intended to introduce children into the world of horror stories. It is my belief that’s what the film was made for as well. It’s hard to make good horror films while sticking to the PG-13 rating, but I think they were able to do a good job. Everyone should be able to enjoy horror films without dumbing them down as they did in Goosebumps.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is intended for two groups of people. The first is children who are too young to go see films like IT or Anabelle but still like spooky content. The second is made up of people, like me, who loved the books when we were kids. As I stated before, much how the books served as an introduction to horror for children the film was made with the same goal.
The story is entertaining, the characters are relatable, and the creatures are well made. It makes small strides to feature the struggles of Latino people, something we need right now. No, you won’t see anything ground-breaking or genre-changing, but it’s apparent that wasn’t their goal. Simply put, if you’re looking for a good horror film to enjoy with your kids then this is a great choice. However, if you’re looking for something more then IT Chapter II will be out soon enough.