Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
scary stories to tell in the dark | andre ovredal | dan hageman | kevin hageman | guillermo del toro | zoe margaret colletti | michael garza | gabriel rush | based on | novel | alvin schwartz | mystery | thriller | united states | canada | ghost | haunted house | haunted
Film: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Director: André Øvredal
Writer: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman and Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza and Gabriel Rush
When I heard that Guillermo del Toro was involved in bringing these series of books to life, I was intrigued. He is great at the fairy tale horror movies, so that was a perk. These books are one of my first forays into reading horror and this was a staple of my childhood. It was a race to check these out in both elementary school libraries that I went to. It wasn’t until my sister bought the trilogy that I got the chance to read them cover to cover without being rushed. It’s been quite a while since I did so. My first viewing was at the Gateway Film Center and now a second watch for the Summer Series for the Podcast Under the Stairs. The synopsis for the movie is a group of teens face their fears to save their lives.
We get a solid introduction to all of the characters and the setting of the film. It is a small town in Pennsylvania back in 1968. There’s a backdrop here of Richard Nixon trying to get the Republican nomination and that seems to be the buzz around the town. Our main character is Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti). She lives with her father and she wants to become a writer. Her best friends are Auggie Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush) who is kind of a hopeless romantic for any girl that will show interest. Their other friend is Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur). His has an older sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) who is quite attractive and into theater. It is Halloween and the two guys must convince Stella to come out as they have a prank planned.
The era is interesting, because it is in the middle of the Vietnam War and the draft is a scary, looming thing. A young man Ramón (Michael Garza) is passing through, following the harvest. The local sheriff, Chief Turner (Gil Bellows) asks him about what’s he up to and I got a vibe of racism here.
There is also a local bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams) who lives on a farm. He doesn’t like their scarecrow, named Harold. He traumatizes the group of kids that we are following. He’s the one they’re trying to get their revenge on, which leads them to meeting Ramón. It’s at the drive-in and he protects them from Tommy. Stella takes a liking to Ramón and invites him to a local haunted house. It is there we the back-story of the town and one of its founding families. There’s a local legend about Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). Stella discovers her book and asks her to tell her a story. The problem is that this awakens a vengeful spirit that starts to punish them for what they’ve done.
That is where I’ll end my recap and lead off here stating that I like what they did by adapting this to the screen. As I said that I grew up with these books, so it is fun to hear the title of some of my favorite stories and getting to see some of them brought to life here. There’s a dark story here if I’m going to be honest and that is something I appreciated it.
Going beyond that though, there is a deeper story here that works. The background of the Bellows family and how it comes into play of the film. Sarah had a condition and she lived in 1898, so I could literally see a family hiding her away like they did. It sounds like part of it was that she was albino. The family has another secret and Sarah is kept quiet. The backdrop of Nixon as well is something I like. The idea of corruption as a social commentary and how much the townspeople here are embracing it. It is interesting that the town seems to like Nixon. It is also looking at our nation and its current place as well.
Something else that is a commentary here is on racism. We get that feeling from the Chief Turner. Tommy also calls Ramón a derogatory term. It also shows how depraved Tommy can be with what he does to Ramón’s car. We are in small town US, where even until today there are people that harbor these same feelings. There aren’t a lot of secrets, but we see with the Bellows family, they can run deep.
There was something else here that I caught on to with Stella and Sarah. Sarah is telling her scary stories and it is killing people. Stella wants to be a writer and she is into horror. The duality of the two is interesting and something that happens during the climax was as well. I almost wished they would have gone a step farther though. There’s a cool scene where we hear a recording of Sarah and she is telling something that is of events happening in the present. They didn’t do the cop out I thought they were moving toward, but it seems like it could if they decide to go with a sequel. There are so many stories and from the success, it does seem possible. I’d be fine with it continuing to be honest.
To move to the pacing of the film, I was surprised to see that it had a running time of almost 2 hours. That did kind of worry me, but to be honest, it is a non-factor. The movie doesn’t waste any time getting into it and moves from event to event. I liked how that happened. I do think we get a bit of catering to a younger audience, but it is nothing that hurt the film for me. The movie does build tension throughout. I did like the climax and how everything plays out in the end. As I said, it felt like it was gearing to something I didn’t want to have happen, but it didn’t go there thankfully. It is fitting that this was co-written and produced by del Toro, because we do get that dark fairy tale vibe he is known for.
I want to move to my thoughts on the acting here. Colletti was solid as the lead. I like that she is into horror and that she wants to be a writer. It made me see some of myself in her character, which helps when you can connect like that. There’s deeper trauma there that her mother left while she is young and she blames herself. It brings darkness to the character. Garza is solid as well. There is an interesting political aspect to the film with him and I also think is solid to see him dealing with racism that was accepted back then. I don’t like how his character ends at the film, but it makes sense with the breaking the circle of corruption. Rush and Zajur are solid, especially with the latter bringing some comedy to the film. I did like seeing Dean Norris as Stella’s father and Bellows in his role as well. I also thought that Abrams brings a villainous character that we need with his comeuppance being fitting. That almost feels like an EC comic vibe which I do think was inspiration along with urban legends for the series of books. The rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed.
Something I was worried about coming into this film was the effects. I knew that they were going to go CGI, but to be honest, it wasn’t an issue. They did it for the most part in a way that looked realistic. Not all of it, but some of this feels like a nightmare so I’m more forgiving in cases like that. It seems more they were there to enhance, not be the focal. I thought the look of Sarah was good, especially because they hide her for a lot of it. I will always say that just give me a little, because my imagination will probably scare me more than what they can do. The cinematography also helps here. There were some interesting camera angles and POVs that really worked in building tension as well.
The last thing to cover would be the soundtrack. I thought it was fitting. It kicks with ‘Season of the Witch’, which being set on Halloween is great. They also finish the film with a cover of it, which I also liked. The rest of it fit the scenes and helped to build the necessary tension. Not an all-time great soundtrack, but the blend of atmospheric and real songs was good.
Now with that said, I enjoyed this film. I thought that they did a good job in bringing these stories to life and meshing them together with a dark back-story. There is an interesting aspect here with the social commentary of the time as well as bringing up issues that are still plaguing the country today. I thought despite its running time that it built the necessary tension, which the soundtrack helped there as well. The acting was solid. Even though they went with CGI mostly, it still looked good to me. There would only be slight issues. I thought this was a good film overall and would recommend this if you’re a fan of the books or even if you don’t necessarily like horror films. Much like the books, this is a movie that I would recommend for newer horror fans to get them into the genre.
My Rating: 8 out of 10