As with all my review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the first of three hugely popular kids’ novels written by Alvin Schwartz and featuring imaginative and terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell, that’ve been traumatizing children of all ages since the 80’s. And while we all know how disappointing movie adaptations of beloved books can be, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this particular adaptation managed to deliver on some real creepiness even with a PG-13 rating.
Instead of simply presenting the stories as an anthology, here Scary Stories has its own story that contains the ones from the books. Taking place in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, the very picture of small-town America, the flick uses the turbulent year of 1968 – the era of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s election – as its backdrop and no doubt as the larger moral of the story and statement about society and humanity in general, though all of that really just gets lost in the shuffle.
Our heroes are high-schooler Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a talented young writer, horror movie geek and of course, an outcast at school – along with her equally geeky and unpopular best buds Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush). It’s Halloween night and prankster Chuck has a plan to exact revenge on the biggest bully in school, Tommy the jock (Austin Abrams), who also happens to be dating Chuck’s perfectly popular sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). So Chuck fishes some choice turds out of the toilet and puts them in a pillowcase that looks like any typical trick-or-treating loot bag.
Chuck and Auggie have to browbeat Stella into going though. She seems depressed and insists on staying home and tending to her dad (Dean Norris). There’s a subplot here about Stella’s angst over her mother abandoning them – but that too gets lost in the rest of it, and quite frankly, seems a little shoehorned in. Anyway, she eventually caves and gets dressed up and goes with them. And Chuck’s plan works like a charm, as Tommy drives up alongside the trio and snatches what he thinks is their candy haul – but turns out to be a bag of crap. And then Chuck hits him with the pièce de résistance – another bag of crap that he’s lit on fire. Tommy freaks and panics and ends up crashing his car into somebody’s yard.
Furious and humiliated, Tommy and his jock buds chase our heroes into the drive-in theater. Stella, Auggie and Chuck end up getting into someone’s car just to hide – and that someone happens to be a kid named Ramón (Michael Garza), a drifter looking for migrant work. Stella and Ramón have an instant connection, bonding over their love of scary movies – so when Tommy and his jock buds find them and try to force them out of the car, Ramón puts on his best tough-guy face and refuses to be intimidated, even though Tommy’s doing his best to taunt him with racial slurs. Luckily, Tommy and his jock buds end up getting kicked out of the drive-in by the manager, but not without promising his revenge.
So what do you do after something like that happens? Well, you go check out the local haunted house, of course. Stella brings them to the house of local legend Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). The Bellows family established the paper mill that built the town, and Sarah was the sickly child whom the Bellows hid from the world. Stella tells Ramón of the legend that Sarah told the local children scary stories through the wall of her basement prison – children who ended up dying, and whose deaths were blamed on Sarah.
Despite Auggie’s reasonable request to leave (“Great, we’ve seen it. Can we go now?”), the bunch all venture inside the house – and while Chuck goads Auggie into a game of hide-and-seek, Stella and Ramón find a secret door in one of the walls that leads down to Sarah Bellows’ basement room – and in that room, Stella finds Sarah’s book of scary stories and opens it up. Fascinated, she smugly challenges Sarah to “tell me a story.”
As soon as she says it, a shadow flows all through the house. And while Chuck is hiding from Auggie in a closet, he opens the door to find the room as it was back when the Bellows were living there – and an old woman sitting on the side of the bed with a huge black dog. It’s creepy enough to make Chuck flee back to Stella and Ramón – and it’s just then that Tommy and his crew show up. Tommy gets his revenge by locking them all in the basement, including Ruth, and leaving them there.
But the ghost of Sarah Bellows has been awakened, and her shadow unlocks the door, letting them all out – and Stella takes the book with her. They all go back to Ramón’s car, which Tommy and his crew have thoroughly vandalized and slashed the tires. Feeling terrible, Stella offers to put Ramón up at her house for the night on their basement couch. There’s a cute scene between them at her house – both Colletti and Garza have an awkward chemistry that’s really sweet.
Meanwhile, a drunken Tommy returns home only to be yelled at by his mother that he has to go deliver eggs to the neighbor’s house (in the middle of the night? Okay, whatever.) And here we begin the first Scary Story, that of Harold the Scarecrow – a story that begins to write itself inside the book. Harold’s the creepiest of scarecrows, which Tommy’s made a habit of beating with his favorite baseball bat. But while Tommy stumbles through the cornfield on the way to the neighbor’s house he finds himself continually running into Harold, and it throws off his sense of direction. Finally, Tommy comes across Harold’s empty pole and starts to hear rustling in the corn and sees fleeting glimpses of something chasing him. Of course it’s Harold, and in running away, Tommy trips on a pitchfork, which he then stabs Harold with. But what good is that really gonna do? None, of course, and Harold takes the pitchfork and runs Tommy through with it. But as he stumbles away, Tommy realizes he’s not bleeding – not blood, anyway. Instead, straw comes out of every orifice and turns him into a scarecrow.
The next day, the whole town’s reeling over Tommy’s sudden disappearance – but as Stella and Ramón sneak through the cornfield and find the new scarecrow with the varsity jacket on, they make the instant leap (rather too easily) into believing that the new stories Sarah Bellows is writing in the book are coming true in real life. But who will be next? And what can they do about it?
Well, the first thing Stella does is go back to the house and put the book back where she found it. Then the kids do the 1968 version of the internet-search-montage and go to the library, researching everything about the Bellows. Turns out that the rumor was that Sarah knew that the paper mill was leaking dangerous amounts of mercury into the town’s water supply – and that that was what killed those children, not Sarah herself. And that the Bellows family kept her locked up so their secret would never be revealed.
All that’s well and good, but it doesn’t tell them anything about how to stop the stories from being written – and that night, Stella’s shocked to find out that the book has somehow mysteriously returned to her room, just as the next Scary Story begins writing itself. This time it’s about Auggie. While talking to his mom on the phone and complaining that she never went grocery shopping before she left town, he finds a pot of stew in the fridge and starts eating it. Right out of the fridge – eww.
Meanwhile at her house, Stella and Ramón watch the story writing itself, this time about a ghostly corpse looking for her missing big toe that’s been put in a stew. They radio Auggie to warn him, but of course he doesn’t listen until it’s too late and he’s already eaten the toe (and then puked it right back up). Then he hears the voice calling, “Who took my toe?” and hears footsteps getting closer and closer. Auggie hides under a bed, but it’s no use – the corpse is under there with him and drags him away, right through the walls to some unknown place. By the time Stella and Ramón get there, all they find are his fingernail marks on the floor, dragging a trail right into the wall.
Terrified now, our remaining heroes try to burn the book – which of course, won’t burn. And the next Scary Story appears in the book that night, this time detailing the story of a girl who got bit by a spider and has a huge red bump on her face. The girl turns out to be Chuck’s sister Ruth, and that night at the school play while she’s trying desperately to cover the bump with makeup, she sees it growing larger. She runs to the bathroom and pokes at the now-huge lump (that looks like the biggest, nastiest zit you’ve ever seen – major gross-out factor), only to see it sprout what looks like a big, ugly, witch-like hair. But it’s not hair – it’s a spider leg. And as Sarah Bellows’ shadow covers the school, the lump explodes out a million baby spiders. Poor Ruth is so traumatized that she ends up getting carted off to the local nut house.
Desperate to find out more about Sarah and the Bellows family in hopes of stopping the stories, Stella, Ramón and Chuck sneak their way into the asylum where Sarah was kept for a time. Stella and Ramón look for the records room that the doctors call the “R.E.D.” room. As soon as Chuck hears that, he won’t go any farther, paranoid about a dream he keeps having about a “red” room and a pale, fat lady who keeps chasing him, saying, “This is an evil place. Run away while you still can.” Stella and Ramón leave Chuck, who promises to stay put – but of course, he doesn’t. Instead, he ends up running all over the hospital trying to escape the orderlies.
Meanwhile, digging through the records (which they find instantly even though it’s a cavernous room with hundreds of shelves), Stella and Ramón discover that the doctors – who also happened to be Bellows – “treated” Sarah with all manner of torturous methods, like electroshock therapy. They find a wax cylinder recording (and something to play it on, of course) that recorded one such treatment, and the Bellows doctor trying to force Sarah into confessing that she murdered the kids.
But while all that’s going on, Chuck’s Scary Story is being written and simultaneously played out. The alarm sounds and all the lights go red, turning the whole place into a “red” room. And some of the flick’s best visual effects come out to play here as the “Pale Lady” appears – taken right from the book’s illustration, she’s doughy, grotesque, terrifying and – well – kinda cute actually, all at the same time. She follows Chuck with extremely slow steps and eventually appears in every direction – finally trapping Chuck into a hug that swallows him whole.
Fearing for their own lives, Stella and Ramón go to the local police for help and detail their incredible story to Chief Turner (Gil Bellows) – who of course, can’t possibly be expected to believe such a crazy story. Instead, he tries to push the idea of Stella being the guilty party, the one who at least knows where all the disappeared kids have gone, if she’s not outright responsible for the disappearances herself. When he can’t get any useful information out of her or Ramón – who he’s outed as a draft dodger – he puts them both into holding cells for the night.
While they sit next to each other in their adjoined cells, Ramón tells Stella the reason why he’s dodging the draft – his older brother had already gone to Vietnam and “came back in pieces.” Understandably terrified, he ran. Stella holds his hand supportively – but before things can get too mushy, it’s time for Ramón’s Scary Story. Sarah’s shadow covers the station and this time a decapitated head falls down out of the chimney, rolling right out in front of Chief Turner saying, “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” (yeah, I have no idea what it means either.)
The shocked Chief (with a hilarious “Are you sh*tting me?”) tries shooting at it – but come on. It’s a decapitated head that talks. Somehow, I don’t think bullets are gonna do any good. And they don’t, as more of the dismembered parts of the character known as the “Jangly Man” fall out of the chimney and reassemble themselves into a full figure that walks, but at the same time, is totally contorted in all the wrong ways. Jangly Man kills the Chief and then goes after Ramón – and then it’s a race between Jangly Man dislocating all his limbs to squeeze through the bars and Stella trying to grab the cell keys off the Chief’s belt.
Of course our heroes win, getting out of their cells just in time. They decide to split up, with Stella heading back to the Bellows’ house while Ramón leads the Jangly Man on a merry chase. Stella runs into the house and shouts that Sarah needs to stop the killings – and it’s then that Stella’s somehow magically transported into the past. She takes Sarah’s place in a memory where she tried to hide from her family and they searched the house for her. When they found her, they dragged her down to the basement and locked her in the room that became her prison.
Meanwhile, after smushing the Jangly Man between his car and a truck, Ramón goes back to the house looking for Stella and can’t find her anywhere. And it isn’t long before the Jangly Man takes himself apart, puts himself back together and finds his way to the house, chasing Ramón all over the place. Even though he can’t see her, Ramón hears Stella’s cries and tells her the only way to end all this is to tell Sarah’s ghost the truth.
Stella finally sees Sarah’s ghost and tells her that she knows the truth – that Sarah wasn’t responsible for the deaths of the children, and how horribly her family treated her. Stella promises that she’ll tell everyone the real story if Sarah will just stop the killings. Ghost Sarah gives Stella her pen and tells her to write in the book in her own blood. Sarah pricks her finger and uses the blood to write her promise in the book, and then tells Sarah to let go of her rage. Sarah lets it out in a scream that shakes the house – and then disappears. And with her disappears the Jangly Man, just in time to save Ramón.
After that, things go back to sort-of normal. As Ramón does his duty and gets on the bus for boot camp, Stella promises him she’ll write him every day. She’s also written Sarah Bellows’ true story, which some in the town believe and some don’t. But that’s okay, because Stella’s leaving town anyway, driving away with her dad and Ruth, who’s under their care now instead of in the loony bin. And Stella holds Sarah’s book in her lap, talking in the narration about how she knows the key to finding Chuck and Auggie lies somewhere in the book. Ah, yes, of course – gotta leave that opening for a sequel.
While I found myself disappointed by the flick’s flimsy storytelling and flat, stereotypical characters – at the same time, I was also quite impressed by how well the flick managed to creep me out with its fantastic imagery. I mean, really – the Pale Lady is going to haunt my dreams for weeks. I’ve often complained in other reviews about horror flicks that don’t take advantage of their R ratings and most importantly, that just aren’t scary. So while Scary Stories definitely has its problems, I would say that it’s actually a lot more successful at horror than most horror movies are these days.
Directed by: André Øvredal
Written by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo Del Toro, Alvin Schwartz (novels)
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2019
Run Time: 1 hr 51 min