Weirdly, while for the majority of my life I haven’t been a big fan of horror movies, I’ve almost always been into horror stories. Not shockingly, I’ve been a big Stephen King fan for most of my life, but even before that I tended to be into spookier books. I was a huge Goosebumps fan back in the day, setting up an early love of somewhat satirical takes on tried and true genres. But, there was one other source of horror fiction that I have incredibly warm nostalgic feelings for. Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Now, to my knowledge I never actually owned any of these books, protective parents being okay with Goosebumps but the Schwartz books being a bridge too far, most likely due to Stephen Gammell’s insane illustrations. But, aside from checking the books out from the library, I have extremely fond memories of experiencing these stories in my elementary school music class. Because about once a month our teacher would do a thing where we all sat on the floor, turning the lights out, and he’d read one of the scary stories, while playing the piano to make a creepy accompaniment, and those were some of my absolute favorite days of my childhood, getting to be scared in school with live music and sound effects straight out of a radio drama. I feel like most people my generation have an affection for the stories of Alvin Schwartz, so when I heard that a movie was being made ostensibly based on the stories, with Guillermo Del Toro playing some sort of part in its production no less, I got excited. Yeah, a lot of the entertainment industry seems based on soullessly mining Millenial nostalgia, but there was something about this project that actually seemed to have a spark of something worthwhile. And, in a pleasant turn of events, that trust actually ended up paying off. Because this movie is a real treasure.
The film takes place in a small rural town in 1968, and follows a group of horror obsessed outcasts, Stella, Auggie, and Chuck, as they blow off some steam and cause some havoc on Halloween, specifically attempting to prank the local bully, Tommy Milner. This goes off the rails pretty quickly, and they seek assistance from a teenaged drifter named Ramon, who successfully scares Tommy off. And, in reward, Stella offers to show Ramon a haunted house. The group takes Ramon to the Bellows mansion, a large home that use to belong to their towns most prominent family, and after breaking in Stella tells Ramon about the legend of Sarah Bellows. Supposedly the family kept her locked in the basement because she was an evil witch, and she used to tell kids scary stories through the walls of her cell, which would almost always result in the children dying, which ended with the police coming to arrest Sarah, only to find her dead in her room. And, while snooping around, they find that there’s more truth to that story than any of them realized, because they actually find the strange secret cell where Sarah Bellows had been kept, and indeed find a strange book of her stories, all written in blood. But, they end up getting distracted when Tommy shows back up and starts picking on them again, with Chuck’s sister, and they all just kind of stop thinking about the book. But, it turns out that they’ve stumbled upon something very evil, because when Stella returns home with the book she watches as it writes a new story by itself, one where Tommy is attacked and killed by a scarecrow on his family farm, causing him to be turned into a scarecrow as well.
And, the next morning Stella learns that that wasn’t just a story. Tommy is missing, and she and Ramon find the new scarecrow wearing Tommy’s clothes. Ramon doesn’t want them to jump to conclusions, but that night Auggie is also seemingly killed after reenacting a story involving a corpse and a big toe, which makes Stella realize that they’re cursed, and will have to find some way to solve it. Stella, Chuck, and Ramon begin investigating Sarah’s history, while Chuck’s sister falls victim to the next story, being driven mad after having a colony of spiders come from inside her face. But, they do start to get a lead on Sarah’s life, finding proof that she didn’t die in the house, but in an insane asylum where she was admitted by her family. And, after searching through some ancient records and listening to a wax cylinder, Stella and Ramon learn that Sarah wasn’t evil or crazy, she just learned the truth that her family were poisoning the town thanks to dumping chemicals from their mill into the drinking water, and they admitted Sarah to keep her quiet. However, while finding this out Chuck is taken by his story, the Pale Lady. And, because of them having had broken into a hospital, Ramon and Stella are temporarily arrested by a cop who has had it out for Ramon the entire time, especially because he knows that he’s a drifter because he fled the draft. However, while being locked up Ramon is the next victim, and the Jangly Man enters the prison to kill him. Stella and Ramon flee, and make their way back to the Bellows mansion to set things right. And, after a trippy series of events that involve Stella going back in time to embody Sarah Bellows herself, she’s able to calm the restless spirit, and end her bloodlust.
Every now and then I come across a movie that I enjoy, but feel a little sad about, because I know that while adult Patrick liked it just fine, it would have meant the world to child Patrick. And, this film is certainly one such movie. I really liked Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It was extremely well-paced, featured a slew of great performances from largely unknown actors, had absolutely gorgeous production design that brought Gammell’s insane illustrations to horrifying life, and it somehow managed to make a horror film meant for young adults that actually felt scary instead of pandering, which seems virtually impossible. And yet, they pulled it off. They made the type of movie that I would have loved to have watched when I was in elementary school, sneaking past my parents for a small taste of youthful rebellion to give myself nightmares for a month. It’s all-ages horror done with a skill that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, succeeding in ways that so many other movies have failed to capture. It doesn’t pull any punches, but it also doesn’t have to rely on too many jump scares or gratuitous gore. It’s a just a genuinely creepy little story that instantly transports you back to a time when you could be excitedly watching this in the dark, knowing that you’re going to be spending that night with the lights on, but also loving the experience too much to back down.
And it’s really remarkable just how important that experience is. Hearing scary stories is such a fundamentally important part of growing up, the camaraderie of knowing we’re all having nightmares, potentially because of the same things. When you’re a kid, you ideally have nothing going on in your life that can inspire true horror. Everyone is not that lucky, by ideally horror is something you’re only aware of in the form of stories. And it’s fun to tip your toe into that world, to be scared by ghosts and goblins, knowing full well that you’re going to be safe. It’s all a story. It’s why kids love things like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Alvin Schwartz basically found dozens of old folks tales that had been passed down for generations, scaring incalculable amount of children, and packaged them in a more efficient way to give us a shared dose of horror to inoculate us from the real world that we so shortly would be experiencing. The horror of war, specifically the Vietnam War, is all over this film, pervasively being featured throughout the entire film, but only really being specifically called out at the end, and that inclusion was pure genius. It’s a story about a bunch of kids worrying about ghosts and nightmares, all while the spectre of true horror and death is just waiting for them, patiently waiting out the clock for them to become adults and be forced to reckon with the real horror of the world. But, hopefully, but then we’ve all been inoculated through these scary stories, taught that life isn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows, that you sometimes will find yourself in a scary story.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was written by Dan and Kevin Hageman, directed by Andre Ovredal, and released by Lionsgate, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk