By Jordan Gerdes
Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark (2019), directed by Andre Øvredal (TrollHunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) is adapted from the collection of short stories by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell. If you are unfamiliar with the books, they were a collection of folk tales, campfire stories and urban legends that, coupled with the haunting illustrations by Gammell, gave nightmares to elementary school children across the country in the 80’s and 90’s. They have been the topic of controversy since release, being pulled out of libraries across the country every few years, and living fondly in the memories of those of us who grew up scouring their pages under blankets by flashlights.
Fast forward to 2019, and Øvredal and producer Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) have taken a collection of folk tales not connected in any way, and set a narrative thread to tie them all together. Taking a page from the Goosebumps film adaptation (2015), Øvredal, Del Toro and writers, Dan & Kevin Hageman have breathed new life into the stories. Set in 1968 in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, a group of friends sneak into a “haunted” house on the edge of town. Once owned by the Bellows family, the town’s essential founders, it now stands decrepit, occupied only by the legacy of child disappearances, black magic, and death. The story goes that Sarah Bellows, daughter of the Bellows family, was imprisoned in the basement of the house because she was “different”. She would write stories, telling them through the walls to anyone who was brave enough to come close enough to the mansion to hear it. After being accused of a number of children’s disappearances, she hung herself with her own hair. Stella, Auggie, Chuck and Ramon all find the book of Bellows short stories in a secret basement room, and once taken from the house, it awakes a sinister force in the town of Mill Valley. As her friends and neighbors begin to disappear around her, it is up to Stella to get to the bottom of the Bellows family mystery, and stop the evil that the book gives life to.
There are so many great things about this film that I am unsure where to start. So, let’s begin with the adaptation itself. Schwartz’s original stories are a literal collection of folk tales that come from the Appalachian region of America. He spent years researching and writing the three volumes, and it only makes sense that Øvredal would set this in small town Appalachian America. The setting of Mill Valley feels a little like the beginning of any good Stephen King book, as we get the sense of a Castle Rock or a Derry like appearance of the town. It is set a mere month before the Draft Lottery of 1969, and the newsreel scenes of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, the Silent Majority speech, and the events surrounding it cement it firmly in your mind that this is a turning point in America, even for small towns.
The creature design is another massive homerun for this film, as it feels if Gammel’s artwork has leapt off the page and animated itself before your very eyes. We see iterations of Harold, the Red Spot, the Pale Woman, The Toeless Corpse, and of course, The Jangly Man. Del Toro and Øvredal brought together a team of horror creature creators (Mike Hill, Norman Cabrera, and Mike Elizalde) and tasked them each with bringing one character to life, overseeing the creature design from beginning to end, all using live actors. The mix of practical effects and CGI works very well for the scope of work, and none of it detracts from the viewing experience. The Jangly Man, specifically, is a mix of practical and CGI, played by “Twisty” Troy James, a genre staple. A contortionist, James has played Pretzel Jack in Channel Zero: Dream Door, as well as Baba Yaga in this year’s Hellboy reboot. Almost all of the character’s motions are James himself, and that adds to the horrifying nature of the character. The use of jump scares ever so often, a concept that was used heavily in Schwartz’s own stories, makes the film that much more tense, as does the use of lighting in the Lady in White sequence. There is some beautiful camera work in this one, and I love what Øvredal does with the environments of the film. The film is scored by Marco Beltrami (A Quiet Place) and Anna Dubrich, and really sets the tone for a lot of these scenes. It is something I can see myself listening to a lot as the leaves begin to change. The other major bonus is the cover of “Season of The Witch”, originally by Donavan, that is covered by Lana Del Ray, which is absolutely perfect and witchy and weird.
There are a number of very heartfelt moments that come across in this film, and the acting is spectacular, being primarily children. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Ramon (Michael Garza), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) all bring a very real performance to the table, one that is reminiscent of the cast of the new IT (2017). We are shown children on the cusp of growing up, who are cognizant of the real-world problems, while trying to retain that last bit of innocence that remains. There are moments in this film that are brutal and horrifying, and you often forget that it is rated PG-13. This is a film that knows its audience is primarily young adults and the adults that grew up with these stories, and it is not even slightly hesitant to scare the absolute shit out of them. This is definitely a gateway horror flick. Kids are going to find nightmares that will have them hooked on the genre for the rest of their lives, and that is a truly amazing thing.
This is one that is going down in my top films this year, and it is a true pleasure to see it work out as well as it did. It leaves hope for a sequel as well, as Schwartz has plenty stories left to adapt. Go see this one as soon as you can.