There are few children’s’ books more formative — or more controversial — than Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a horror short story collection featuring illustrations from Stephen Gammell that had entire generations checking under the bed before they went to sleep. Schwartz and Gammell managed to capture the imagination of kids too old for Goosebumps but not quite ready for Stephen King by mixing folksy, creepy tales of boogeymen with drawings that were somehow even worse than whatever you conjured up in your head. The resulting nightmares made the book (and its sequels) one of the most banned pieces of literature in history. It also created scores of fervent, forever grateful horror fans.
Attempting to recreate that effect for today’s adolescents, director André Øvredal and producer Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of Schwartz and Gammell’s skulking, gruesome creations is a refreshingly genuine labor of nostalgic love, bringing to life the duo’s iconic monsters with the respect they deserve. Stringing together some of the more popular selections from the series with a plot that’s more or less Final Destination for tots, Øvredal manages to deliver a hammy but enjoyable tale of YA terror that’s elevated by some truly impressive set-pieces.
The plot rightfully feels pulled straight out of Schwartz’s original text, weaving a folkloric tale of terror into the everyday lives of a quaint American community. After stealing a book of scary stories written by Sarah Bellows, a young girl kept locked away by her wealthy family for reasons unknown, outsider Stella (Zoe Colletti), her goofball friends Auggie and Chuck (Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur), and drifter Ramón (Michael Garza) soon learn the book is writing new stories seemingly on its own accord, with themselves as the helpless victims contained within. Desperate to end the violence, the group bands together to learn the truth of their town’s dark history and put an end to the horror for good.
If that sounds like generic, easily digestible horror-trope nonsense, that’s because it kind of is. But Øvredal and del Toro (whose influence is dripping from every corner of this thing) are too smart a pair to just leave it at that. This is a surprisingly sociopolitical work, one plagued by the uglier consequences of 1960s Americana. Nixon’s election looms over the town not unlike the ghosts of Schwartz’s works, bringing with it the ongoing threat of the Vietnam War and the specter of racism. Ramón is haunted by slurs hurled at him by the local townsfolk, not to mention the impending doom of being drafted into a slaughter he has no interest in participating in.
As a result, there’s more color to Schwartz’s collection of spooky monsters, whether it’s Harold the Scarecrow menacing the local bigot or the Jangly Man sneering that Ramón is a coward in-between sessions of contorting his body parts. Like King’s It and its recent adaptation (both of which this film clearly admires), this is a horror tale about giving faces to our societal anxieties, how the things that go bump in the night only do so because the dark amplifies what we’ve been scared of all day. It helps that Øvredal does a tremendous job of bringing Gammell’s twisted drawings to life, imbuing each with a tactile sensibility that makes them really feel as if they’ve crawled out of the page.
American mythos aside, this is a set-piece movie through and through and Øvredal consistently nails it. Building off the already enormous potential of Schwartz’s original material, there’s a twisted glee in watching the director push each of the tales to their limits. Since he’s toeing the line between pleasing the adults who grew up on the book and scaring the daylights out of the teens he’s hoping to entrance, there aren’t buckets of blood spilled across the screen. But that doesn’t stop the film from making these creatures perhaps even scarier than the original counterparts, often trading in graphic violence for the abject horror of becoming the very thing that scares us. One thrilling sequence that plays with the concept of time has equal parts literal and existential dread; one character is chased by a demon while the other has to confront the fact that the skeletons in our closet have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt us.
All of Øvredal’s Scary Stories come together to form one of the most thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly intelligent “pure” horror films in recent memory. This is in no way the “elevated horror” that has dominated the genre over the past few years; it’s a lean, mean, deceptively simple tale with a lot on its mind. Scary Stories has its share of problems, from a clunky first act to a studio-friendly ending that undercuts the impact of the film’s political messaging. But Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is ultimately a refreshing reminder that adaptations have limitless potential when placed in the right hands, giving old tales new chances to send shivers down the spines of generations clamoring for monsters that reflect the real ones knocking at our doors.
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