So I’m not a horror guy. Never have been, probably never will be. I mean, sure I’ve seen my fair share of horror movies. I get the tropes, I understand the adrenaline rush people get from being scared in a safe way. But it’s probably the genre I watch the least frequently, at least out of the genres that would get their own headers at video stores.
But when I was in 4th grade, my friend Jason Dotty got Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, from the Scholastic Book Fair. I have no idea what Jason Dotty is doing now, I haven’t talked to him since probably 1992. But at recess we’d take turns reading stories out of this book, as well as its prequel tomes that he’d later acquire, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and MORE Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Between Alvin Schwartz’s collection of American folklore tales and the gruesome and haunting illustrations by Stephen Gammell, there was many-a-lunchtime spent telling these spooky tales. But we were outside in the middle of the day. No matter how horrific a story in a children’s book is, it’s never going to be all that scary when you look up and see a blue sky and puffy white clouds.
Fast forward 20-something years, and there’s this movie. Again, I’m not a horror guy. The last horror movie I saw was 2018’s Hereditary, and I’m honestly not sure what the last one I saw before that would have been (maybe watching The Re-Animator a year earlier? ). But nostalgia is a powerful thing, and I immediately recognized the title: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Well, I know exactly what I’m getting into with that.
So I watched the trailer on YouTube, and I’ll be damned; The visual design for the monsters looks about as accurate to Stephen Gammell’s ghastly, grotesque, otherworldly illustrations as something in three dimensions probably could. Okay, I’m sold.
And honestly, the movie didn’t disappoint. It’s not a direct adaptation of the books; It really couldn’t be, as the books are full of a bunch of 2- and 3-page stories, which would translate to a series of shorts. Instead, we get the tale of a handful of unpopular kids, including the nerdy teenage girl who is obsessed with all things horror, as they travel to a haunted house on Halloween night, 1968. They find a book with a bunch of Scary Stories written in it, written by their fictional town’s local legend, Sarah Bellows. And suddenly, there’s a new story in the book. And what do you know, the character who was bullying them befalls the exact fate of a character in the new tale…who has his same name.
Look, the movie’s rated PG-13. It’s not going to revolutionize horror or anything. But it didn’t set out to. Director André Øvredal said in an interview that he wanted to make an introductory movie to the horror genre for teenagers. “Interested in horror, but not ready to jump directly into the SAW franchise? Start here!” Which is fine. Honestly, as scary as those stories were as children, going back and reading them now? They aren’t nearly as creepy as I remembered them.
Easily the scariest story in the movie is the portion when we (along with the kids) learn the truth about Sarah Bellows — I say this because we have documented evidence of such fates befalling poor young women in the 19th century simply for being a little different; I don’t know about you, but I always find things that could actually happen being much more frightening than anything supernatural.
The visual effects are incredible, especially considering the production team used practical effects anywhere they could. And THAT really pays off; Everything moves as realistically as you’d imagine, and never feel composited into the backgrounds,. The “Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker” creature was played by contortionist Troy James, which led to easily the creepiest monster of the film. There are some obvious CGI moments, but they’re saved for instances that practical effects wouldn’t be…well, practical.
If you’re just looking for direct adaptations of the book’s stories, you’ll be disappointed. But I think this is a good film for what the director intended; An introduction to the horror genre for a PG-13 audience.
But, if you’re not into horror, skip it.