'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' Is a 'Jumanji' Family Fright Fest

Terrifying, bloodless body horror makes this more interesting than your typical PG-13 horror.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — the new feature film adapted from the Alvin Schwartz anthology books of the same name — is nothing like your traditional horror movie. Like the books they’re inspired by, the movie directed by André Øvredal and produced by Guillermo del Toro, is best described as “family horror.” Despite a terrifying art style and frightening plot, the film deals squarely in bloodless body horror in a way that will scare the living daylights out of children without disturbing them. One scene feels like the nastiest Dr. Pimple Popper episode of all time — and the injury isn’t even fatal!

For a story with almost no violence or gore, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has no right to be so scary and gripping. Yet it winds up being a thrilling adventure that’s essentially the Jumanji of chilling ghost stories. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a better alternative to the campy Goosebumps movie … with even more goosebumps involved.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark begins as a simple adventure for teens. It’s Halloween 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town where kids play pranks and break into haunted houses. Nixon blares on TV. Jocks clamor for action in Vietnam. Protestors and draft dodgers do their thing. It was a different time for America that in some ways felt like a transitional period, the end of an era. But other than a slight feeling of passing nostalgia, this setting doesn’t do much for the tale.

Nothing would really be lost putting this film in the modern day, which begs the question: Why isn’t it? On Netflix, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina achieves a similar small-town feeling that’s more or less modern day, but most forms of technology are conspicuously absent. Scary Stories could have — and should have — done something similar. Nixon chattering about Vietnam feels more like a distraction than anything else.

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Stella Nicholls is our bookish, brilliant protagonist — and she's one of the strongest parts of this story.

The Scary Stories A-plot involves a group of kids who find a magical book in the basement dungeon of a haunted house As they gradually discover the darkest secrets of their town’s history, new Scary Stories are written into the book with blood by the embittered ghost of a poor albino girl tortured by her family a century ago, and each story targets one of them. This serves as an adequate vehicle to deliver the short stories fans of the books will remember in a movie that explores what Final Destination would be like if it were actually smart, or a more edgy Goosebumps.

Despite being comprised of what’s essentially a motley assortment of derivative separate parts, Scary Stories thrives by telling a story about stories, commenting on the nature of what they mean to us. Stories can heal or hurt regardless of if they’re truth or fiction.

This heady top-down meta-analysis isn’t necessary, but it’s still welcome, especially when packaged like this. Scary Stories does well not to dwell on the meta storytelling too much, but it’s smart enough, especially when coming from actress Zoe Margaret Colletti’s whip-smart, charismatic female lead (Stella Nichols), who’s smarter than her two male best friends combined. They’re a pair of bumbling cronies who each can’t get out of their own way, offering up all of the comic relief — and two bodies to meet unfortunate ends.

In this, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark fails whatever the opposite of a Bechdel Test is, and that’s kind of awesome.

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Sorry kid, you're not going to make it.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is best seen with only a vague knowledge of the original stories, a passing memory of the titles, and definitely no foreknowledge of the “Big Twist” in each short story that rattled the bones of many a young kid in real life.

When you expect what’s going to happen, it cheapens some genuinely interesting twists that make Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark much better than it would be otherwise. You expect the story to zig but it zags.

We’re trained to see the logical in stories, even when dealing in supernatural horror. Plot has to function in terms of cause and effect. You expect things to go a certain way because of certain rules, but things never happen like you think they would in this movie. The story works better when it makes no sense at all, when the body horror comes across as totally absurd. (“The Jangly Man” created just for this movie is a real highlight for this reason.)

In fact, it’s better when you forget that this movies is PG-13, and you expect the boring blood and gore that runs rampant in most horror. Instead, Scary Stories has to be smarter.

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His name is Harold and he just wants people to be nice ... and to turn you into a scarecrow.

When a scarecrow comes alive and stabs the mean jock with a pitchfork right through the gut, you expect him to die in a pool of his own blood. It’s the predicable thing. He deserves it, especially when he told the scarecrow to “Eat shit!” two minutes ago. The pacing and foreshadowing present all of this as a logical plot beat after the jock tortured our heroes earlier. We’re meant to revel in a sense of karmic justice when he’s the first victim. But rather than become a movie all about Harold the nasty scarecrow going on a killing spree, Scary Stories goes down a more interesting path.

The kid vomits up straw, pulls the stuff out of his gut, his head, his nose, his mouth, until he becomes a scarecrow. (Fans of the book will recognize this as a short story called “Harold the Scarecrow.”) This kind of unsettling big final twist is common to the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is how it’s almost bloodless yet still manages to be shocking and gripping. This is seemingly owed to Guillermo del Toro’s influence and mastery of creature design and body horror. (Reports indicate he had significant influence in the editing room.)

The original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and subsequent sequels all work so well because we tend to grope for the logical conclusion in every area of our lives, including the fiction we read or watch. Whether that’s a short piece of written horror or a big-budget movie, we crave something that makes sense to us. But in these stories, nothing makes logical sense, and that’s the scariest thing of all.


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will be released in theaters August 9, 2019.

Media via Lionsgate