For our final October Countdown Review, for the Big Day itself, we have the 2019 adaptation of the middle grade books accused of warping the minds of a generation, the late-twentieth-century “Tales from the Crypt,” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell presented the collections as folk literature, drawing on urban legends, old yarns, and local folklore, and the books have become classics, despite the concerns of some parents and school boards.1
The movie creates a larger frame in which to place the horror. It begins Halloween Night, 1968, in a small town haunted by a mysterious figure known for her scary stories…. And alleged to have been a killer of children.
Cast and Crew
Director: André Øvredal
Writers: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton, and Marcus Dunstan
Adapted from the book series by Alvin Schwartz
Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza as Ramon Morales
Gabriel Rush as Auggie Hilderbrandt
Austin Abrams as Tommy Milner
Dean Norris as Roy Nicholls
Gil Bellows as Chief Turner
Austin Zajur as Chuck Steinberg
Natalie Ganzhorn as Ruth Steinberg
Lorraine Toussaint as Lou Lou
Ajanae Stephenson as Lou Lou (8 yrs)
Kathleen Pollard as Sarah Bellows
Deborah Pollitt as Mrs. Steinberg
Victoria Fodor as Mrs. Milner
Marie Ward as Mrs. Hilderbrandt
Mark Steger as Harold the Scarecrow / Pale Lady
Javier Botet as Big Toe Corpse
Troy James as Jangly Man
Kyle Labine as Deputy Hobbs
David Tompa as Doctor
Karen Glave as Claire Baptiste
Stephanie Belding as Reception Nurse
Hume Baugh as Deodat Bellows
Jane Moffat as Delanie Bellows
Will Carr as Ephraim Bellows
Amanda Smith as Gertrude Bellows
Brandon Knox as Harold Bellows
Matt Smith as Mr. Steinberg
Colton Gobbo, Daniel Gravelle as Lettermen
After harassing some bullies2 on Halloween night, 1968, a group of friends and their newfound ally escape to the local haunted house (of course they do) where they find a cursed book (naturally) in a hidden room (undiscovered lo these many years that the manor has been abandoned). The book starts “writing” horrific tales that come true in their small community, with fatal results. Can our small band of teens stop the dark forces they’ve unleashed?
Some filmmakers would have gone for the obvious and tried to make a horror anthology film. The problem is that the “Scary Stories” generally don’t run very long, and most wouldn’t bear padding. Many of the source tales include notes regarding the gestures and surprise elements that would accompany a real-world telling– without which, they wouldn’t be very effective. Instead, del Toro and company developed a script that permitted them to showcase a few of the stories in the context of a broader, fairly coherent Halloween movie. It’s not a horror masterpiece, but the results prove a lot better than, I suspect, an anthology film based on this material would have been.
The script uses its story and historical setting to develop thematic elements and social commentary. A couple of the themes feel like they belong in the film. But include too many of these– Vietnam, racism, the role of women, pollution, corporate greed, the nature and purpose of storytelling– and they start to feel forced, especially in a film that already tends to meander. The stories themselves have enough inherent resonance, as evidenced by the success of the book series.
Originality: 2/6 The movie takes its cue from a collection of twice-told tales, but it does create an original story with which to set those tales, creating a narrative urgency that would be missing from a straightforward anthology. The characters in that story veer a little too close to clichéd, and the film overall borrows, fairly deliberately, conventional gothic trappings.
Effects: 6/6 Scary Stories uses a broad range of techniques and, frequently, the lower-key effects prove the most chilling. The monsters have been well-designed; they’re appropriately scary and outrageous.
Production: 6/6 The film features excellent production and effective use of music. From a personal perspective, I find it fun to see a film that was shot locally3.
Acting: 5/6 Zoe Margaret Colletti gives an impressive central performance, and the film gets a boost from a generally strong supporting cast.
Story: 4/6 The plot keeps things moving and it ties the tales together, but it’s a little chaotic and it leads to an ending that’s both too pat and, simultaneously, too eager to set up the inevitable sequel.
Emotional Response: 4/6 While Trick “R” Treat remains my favorite Halloween Horror Anthology film, it’s not family-friendly. While not suited to younger children, Scary Stories maintains its PG-13/A-14 rating, making it a more accessible view.
In total, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark receives 32/42
Our Mind-Killer Countdown for this year has been:
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Vampire Circus (1972)
Body Bags (1993)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
1. The late Alvin Schwartz researched folklore, urban legends, and other sources. He both collected and fabricated story elements, which tends to be how folk literature works, and provided academic notes. The three compilations, published in 1981, 1984, and 1991 all proved quite successful with middle-grade/YA readers, but not necessarily with their adult supervisors and mentors. The American Library Association identifies the series as the most-challenged American books from the 1980s.
2. While this is revenge for past bullying and the main bully proves completely unsympathetic, our mostly-sympathetic protagonists literally put people– including innocent bystanders– at risk of life and limb. It turns out to be an interesting bit of foreshadowing.
3. The movie takes place in Pennsylvania, 1968, but they filmed in and around southern Ontario, with most of the locations an hour’s drive (give or take) from my house. The spooky Bellows House is actually Petrolia, Ontario’s Fairbanks House aka Sunnyside, a local landmark in that small town.