I’ve never participated in the PG-13 debate. Not because I don’t have an opinion on the matter, but because I am quite evidently not the sole demographic of a movie that welcomes the butts of fourteen-year-olds parking front and center of a Friday evening screening (not too late, cause dad might fall asleep on the couch and forget to pick them up). PG-13 horrors aren’t for me. They’re for all of us. Both the young horror fans that are emerging, and the full-fledged, nostalgia-hungry monsters we adults have become (I’m a nostalgia monster too, so don’t @ me).
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books were the flashlight under the sheet horror of our tween days. Every page, every spooky chicken scratch drawing aimed to terrify us to the point we wouldn’t dare turn off the light lest we catch a shadow from the corner of our eye, or let our toes touch the cold hardwood lest a hand reach out and snatch us.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark the movie has the lofty task of pleasing both those audiences. The budding horror fan, and the veteran holding a worn Scary Stories book. Requirements are high; they’ve got to avoid gore and violence enough to squeak by the sensors, all while staying loyal to the themes of original author Alvin Schwartz and the terrifying illustrations of Stephen Gammell. And with Guillermo del Toro, master of supernatural and spirit-filled tales producing and André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) directing, Scary Stories the movie might just scare your kids as much as the books scared you.
Kicking off Halloween Night, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark drops us in a small, rural town of Mill Valley during the end of 1968. Classic Horror junkie Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) wants to stay into the night, but a call on the walkie talkie beckons her to come out for one last year of Trick or Treating. She dons some warts and a witch costume, and meet her pals Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). When your a tweenager, Trick or Treating is just code for “pranks”, so the trio end up getting the town bully in a letterman’s jacket covered in eggs..and worse. On the run and desperate for a hiding spot, the group all wind up in the drive-in theater. They duck into the car of young drifter Ramón (Michael Garza). Once the bullies have been escorted off the premises by the theatre manager, the group get back to getting their Halloween kicks, and head to the town’s notoriously haunted house.
Legend has it, Stella tells newcomer Ramón, that the Bellows family, who owned the home, had a reclusive daughter, Sarah Bellows. Kept locked away somewhere in the house, Sarah would pass the time by telling scary stories through the wall to the neighbor children who dared trespass on the Bellows’ property. The legend of Sarah took an even darker turn after the children of the town began to go missing, and Sarah the culprit.
Of course, all that is just set up for the monstrous ghoulies that await in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It isn’t until Stella finds Sarah’s book, her very own scary stories etched in blood, that the frightful fun really gets going.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark might take a bit to get to the ghost stories, but the film isn’t shy on sharing its creatures. Working hard to de-throne Tim Burton’s dark and gorgeous Sleepy Hollow as the scariest 14A-and-under (A Canadian thing) horror to date, Scary Stories has a whole team of terrors at the ready. Scarecrow Harold with his girthy step and hollow belly, the creaking crooked and re-assemble-able Jangly Man, the mood-lit Pale Woman, (and more) all get time to shine and children to terrify.
“Ovredal isn’t afraid to pull out a horrific bag of teasing, traumatizing pacing tricks.”
And, while character design and practical monsters are the bread and butter, Ovredal isn’t afraid to pull out a horrific bag of teasing, traumatizing pacing tricks. Those tried and true tools to up the ante during an adult-friendly Supernatural flick. Doors creak open at an anxiety-inducing crawl, the absence of beasts, and the impossibility of some of their appearances, all heighten the level of tension so much that we’re still utterly terrified of a monster when they’re smiling plainly at us, only looking for a hug.
Perhaps this is where I do get to go full out nostalgia monster. Though set in 1968, our Scary Stories trio simply feel cut and pasted. The world they’re pasted into is carefully crafted; classic cars, retrotastic signage, and lovely time-capsule set-pieces help transport us, but the dialogue feels too contemporary to keep our belief suspended. This may perhaps have been a conscious decision, one that makes our trio more relateable to tweens today. Dangs, Swells, and Jiminy Crickets aren’t the YASS QUEENSS we remember. Luckily, Chuck’s older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) holds down the film fort for 60’s garb and hairstyling, nailing her spider sequence so hard I wanted to immediately hunt down a copy of the Beehive episode of Freaky Stories (a Canadian television show from the 90s with a similar setup to Scary Stories).
“..perhaps the best part of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and something del Toro has always been mindful of in his paranormal tales, our ghosts are given purpose.”
And perhaps the best part of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and something del Toro has always been mindful of in his paranormal tales, our ghosts are given purpose. Horror will always have a bad rap for slicing, dicing, maiming, and splaying — but no genre holds a mirror up to our world quite as honestly as our little misfit genre. Kid-friendly horror should be the same. Yes, we should shrink in our seats, hide our eyes, and feel the goosebumps grow – but horror should always seek to examine a world that is far from perfect. Scary Stories is so perfectly placed in the climate of today. With an opening monologue spelling it out better than I could, Stella warns about the power of stories, that when said enough.. become believed. Stories can be told for good, but stories can hurt us. Divide us. And that’s a great lesson to bestow on a younger generation. Perhaps they can grasp it, because ours sure hasn’t.