Even if you’ve never read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, you know its stories in one fashion or another. The three-book collection of spooky tales with graphic artwork from Stephen Gammell that some may argue is too intense for kids has been a staple in any horror-lovers childhood between 1981 and 1991. The stories are a collection of real myths, tall tales, folklore, and legends from all across the country, recounted by Alex Schwartz as if he was there experiencing it.
A lot has changed when it comes to children horror over the years. With the revival of the horror-comedy Goosebumps and its sequel, and the scary but silly The House With A Clock in Its Walls, the genre is starting to make a comeback from its straight to VHS/DVD days in the 90s and early naughties. With Guillermo del Toro (Pans Labyrinth, The Shape Of Water) being one of its producers and André Øvredal as its director (Troll Hunter, Autopsy Of Jane Doe), not only is this another film added to the returning genre, but it’s also risen the bar.
Set in the year 1968, the movie is about Stella Nichols (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a nerdy horror-loving outcast who is convinced by her best friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush and Chuck (Austin Zajur) to come out on Halloween to prank the town bully (Austin Abrams), but they’re caught and chased. To avoid him, they duck into a car that belongs to Ramon (Michael Garza), a loner making his way through town.
When the coast is clear, they take Ramon to the local haunted house and tell him the story of Sarah Bellows, whose ghost tells scary stories that make children disappear. While in the house, Stella finds the actual book belonging to Sarah Bellows, and that’s when things begin hitting the fan and kids start vanishing.
Right out the gate, Scary Stories doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the social commentary and political backdrop of that time. The town is torn down the middle because of the Vietnam War. Young men are walking into recruitment centers with swastikas spray-painted on posters with Nixon’s face. It’s a unique way of setting this tense underlining tone for the whole film.
I won’t talk about the monsters in the movie because I don’t want to give anything away, but the first four monsters in the film set the general tone because those situations where they’re involved are almost practical in our reality, and it’s terrifying and brilliant.
What sets this movie apart from other horror films, and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a PG-13 horror film designed to scare the piss out of children (which it damn-near does uniquely), is that there’s a genuine sense of dread. Without realizing it, the cast did such a phenomenal job getting me invested in their characters; I was sitting on the edge of my seat for some scenes, and the last time I did that was Avengers: Endgame. Øvredal does such a fantastic job setting the mood with the music and lighting and sometimes just dead silence, the scares are that much more prominent, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from the guy behind The Autopsy Of Jane Doe (which, by the way, is on Netflix. If you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen that movie, you need to see that movie).
After everything is said and done, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does precisely what it sets out to do: scare you. There’s no blood, no gore, or sex. I don’t believe I heard anyone curse. This movie is so clean, you can take your grandmother to see it, and even she might enjoy it.