‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ successfully resurrects childhood fear

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Photo Credit: courtesy of Giant Thumb Studios | Daily Texan Staff

The illustrations that haunted ‘90s childhoods are back, more alive than ever. 

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a film adaptation of the eponymous collection of short stories written by Alvin Schwartz and iconically illustrated by Stephen Gammell. “Scary Stories” is directed by André Øvredal (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) and produced by critically acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). The film follows a group of teenagers in a small American town in 1968. They accidentally uncover a cursed book that brings nightmarish stories — inspired by Schwartz’s collection — to life. 

The cast is led by a small, yet strong, group of teenagers played by impressive actors. Zoe Margaret Colletti leads the ensemble as the creative Stella Nicholls. Colletti interjects a morbid curiosity into her character and showcases her compassion and drive with ease. Opposite of Coletti is Michael Garza in the role Ramón Morales. Garza faces racism in the cruel setting of 1960s America with a fierceness that matches the strength of the character.

Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur round out the main cast as Auggie and Chuck. They offer a dosage of comedic relief with their banter and immature humor. Austin Abrams is the antagonist, a classic high school bully named Tommy. His unhinged demeanor and drunken body language convey a sense of unpredictability and intimidation, while his actions lend a sense of humane villany in contrast with the supernatural villains.

The biggest success of “Scary Stories” is the absolutely incredible creature design. Guillermo del Toro and an impressive makeup team bring Stephen Gammell’s haunting illustrations from the original stories to life — or death. Based on the human form or animals, these ghastly creations contort, limp and claw in a series of horrifying sequences that give viewers’ imaginations room to play. Subtle facial work with characters such as the infamous Pale Lady from the original short story “The Dream” add an uncanny touch of humanity to such terrifying monsters. 

Roman Osin’s cinematography beautifully pairs with Øvredal’s direction. Bright blue skies contrast with the farmland of rural America, where eerie mansions are shrouded in a gray shadow with glimpses of hopeful light seeping through. Osin works the camera in dynamic ways, often making use of revolving shots and wide angles. The shots slow as tension looms, creating a sense of extreme unease. 

The story is consistently engaging and intelligent, with a suspenseful lineup of horrifying events that slowly unravel truths related to the cursed book. Thematic elements that touch on concepts such as the corrupt adults in power (especially during the ‘60s when the film is set) and the tendency for outsiders to be treated in cruel ways lend credence to what is otherwise a children’s story. Ramón Morales’s struggle of being labelled as an outsider parallels the treatment of another character in the film that is closely tied to the origin of the haunted book. At times these themes can feel a bit on the nose, such as in instances where every TV in the film is playing footage of Richard Nixon. 

For a PG-13 film, the sequences in “Scary Stories” are downright scary. Minimal lighting, smooth camera work and superb creature design create some extremely harrowing moments. Although, there are times when the editing and sound design don’t quite highlight the reveal of a scare as much as they should. 

“Scary Stories” is a deliciously morbid treat for young audiences and veteran horror fans alike. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars