‘Stories heal, stories hurt.’ To put it simply- melding the bridge between truth and fiction is the overarching theme of Guillermo Del Toro’s newest masterpiece, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Based on the iconic horror classics by Alvin Schwartz, Del Toro (Pan’s Labrynth, The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak) along with André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunter) at the helm as director have brought Scary Stories and all of our childhood nightmares onto the big screen in a mix of terrifying realism and good old fashioned nostalgia.
The film opens in the small town of Mill Valley on (fittingly) Halloween, during the year of Nixon’s election. We follow Stella (Zoe Colletti), an aspiring teen writer and her high school friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush), Chuck (Austin Zajur), and Ramón (Michael Garza)- a mysterious just-rode-into-town stranger- as they navigate away from high school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) and into to the dark hallways of Mill Valley’s resident haunted house. Legend has it the house sits absorbed after the Bellow’s family left town after the tragic death of youngest daughter Sarah Bellows whose ghost still lingers waiting in the basement. No major spoilers- but the tension filled atmosphere created by Øvredal paired with the genuine performances by the cast, will transport you into a world that feels exciting, familiar, and terrifying all at once. After a little hide and seek- Stella comes across a book written by Sarah Bellows herself filled with- yes, scary stories. The viewer is transported quickly into a cat and mouse game of escaping each scary story, or becoming that story.
Here is where we start to get into the (toe)meat of the film, and what everyone who grew up going to Scholastic Book Fairs and devouring classic Nickelodeon shows like All That is waiting to hear about: THE MONSTERS. From the Jangly Man to the Pale Lady- Stephen Gammell’s monsters have come to life and are unnervingly lifelike. The undeniably horrifying creatures that haunted us from Schwartz’s books do not disappoint. In an age where CGI and horror often go hand in claw- Scary Stories instead utilizes incredibly crafted prothstetics on world class actors with unique talents like contortion in lieu of animation to bring breath into the deadly.
If you are only looking for a bunch of jump scares or lots of gore- this is definitely not the film for you. Scary Stories is an atmospheric mind meld with a deserved PG-13 rating, but keep in mind the 147 minutes is in no way a light children’s movie- despite being entirely adapted off of books we (probably shouldn’t have?) read as nine year olds. Scary Stories is a fantastic gateway film for viewers wanting to experience a strong, linear horror flick- but might not be up for two hours of Ari Aster or into the the endlessly disturbing visuals of Lars Von Trier. One other thing to note about Scary Stories is the beautifully subtle, but well done commentary on today’s American society, and how some things haven’t changed all that much from 1968.
Overall, Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark is a solid and easily rewatchable, dark, nostalgic, and gorgeous dive into what scares us and why. Part of what makes this film so powerful is the lesson that lingers when you leave the theatre. ”You don’t read the book. The book reads you,” is an epiphany Stella has while trying to figure out how to survive the stories that are written to kill her. As humans we are capable of creating narratives that either do good, or do evil. Does there come a time when we no longer control our own narratives? Are we destined to follow only one path, or can we start over? Is there a way to make reparations for our past, without erasing it? Who will tell the truthful tales of what happened to us once we are gone? All of these questions are asked of the viewer throughout the film, and that- is what is most effective and haunting about both Del Toro and Øvredal’s work. Phone a middle school pal, get a slushee, put on your favorite 90’s band t-shirt, and g watch Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Go for the monsters, leave with introspection. (Well… and monsters. You’ll probably leave with those as well, they are all really, really cool.)