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Movie Review: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

You’ll have to sleep with the lights on tonight with Scary Stories to tell in the Dark. Image used from

For nearly forty years the book series Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark has frightened readers both old and young. If it wasn’t the grim, disturbing and oftentimes gory folk tales that scared readers, then it was definitely the nightmare inducing illustrations by Stephen Gammell which truly helped the books stand out and be memorable. It was such a strange book as it was marketed towards children, I can remember being a young boy and walking around the yearly Scholastic book fair carrying arm fulls of mythology and Captain Underpants books and feeling a chill whenever I passed those unnerving covers. Now the books that scarred us all has come to life on the big screen, but do these tales of woe and terror hold up or are the monsters we visioned in our minds far worse then what we see with our eyes?

The story for SSTTITD is pretty good however I feel it went with the wrong structure. On Halloween night, 1968 a group of teenagers go to the Bellows house and find the book of Sarah Bellows, a mysterious young woman who told scary stories and was supposedly a child murderer. The teens read from her book and find new stories appearing each night and each night someone is haunted by one of Sarah’s monsters. The main overall story is done rather well. We’re given time to establish our characters and are told enough of the story of Sarah Bellows to get the gist. A majority of the story follows the teens solving the mystery of Sarah Bellows and trying to break their curse and I must admit this story is done rather well. The pacing is fine and the mystery itself is interesting and one I found myself drawn into. There’s even social commentary involving the Vietnam War as the war itself and the 1968 election of Richard of Nixon are constantly brought up. it can be a little heavy handed but the idea that the monsters kill and steal teenagers, never to be seen again, alongside a controversial war was a nice touch. The problem lies with the portions that follow the stories of Sarah Bellows coming to life. There are six segments in the movie and each one is done very well. Thought they each eventually end with a jump scare there’s still a build up of tension and suspense. In many instances I found myself holding my breath and gradually feeling more and more uneasy especially  in the most quiet of moments when a character was attempting to hide.Like the books themselves these segments try to appeal to a younger audience, being bereft of blood, gore and foul language yet they are still incredibly frightening with their imagery, tension and the fates of a few characters. one doesn’t need guts and decapitations to make a death scene shocking. I applaud the film for doing that, showing a PG-13 rated horror film can still be nightmarish without sacrificing anything. However, there’s a huge problem with the segments: They’re too short. Each and every segment felt like it was only five minutes while we spend more time with the story in the in between. It’s a shame because these stories,and monsters, are very good and were the film’s strongest aspect. Here’s why I said the structure was wrong: In the film the main characters go into the Bellows house and find Sarah’s secret room where she was kept locked up and subsequently find her book. They’re locked in by the town bully but quickly get out. I feel they should have stayed locked in the room until morning and had no choice but to read the book to pass the time, thus making it an anthology. The stories would have been longer and it would have made a lot more sense, they had a perfect framing device and everything. Still for what it’s worth the story was pretty good and I guess it does work if one is trying to expand the film into a franchise.

The characters for SSTTITD are pretty good

At first glace our main character Stella is just plain awful. It’s her idea to go into the Bellows house, it’s her idea to steal Sarah Bellows’ book and she’s the one that brings about these atrocities on her own friends. I tend to hate these types of characters, the ones who doom their friends but you just know they’ll get out alive. But as the film went on her character did grow on me a little. She took full responsibility for her actions, she was doing everything she could to break the curse and save her friends and she felt a great guilt for everything that happened. She even does some impressive things in the third act and does seem to have more depth then your average horror film hero. 

Stella’s friends are Auggie, Chuck and Ramon and each is a good character. Ramon is the more important of the three and initially he comes off as the typical nice guy character but as the film goes on it becomes clear there’s something about him that is quite poignant with the Vietnam theme of the film. Auggie is a decent character but is underdeveloped. His main characteristic is that he’s the no nonsense character and it feels like he doesn’t get much to do to grow out of that. Surprisingly it’s Chuck who ends up being the most interesting of these characters. Chuck is the comic relief character, meaning most if not all of his lines are going to be agonizing. And initially they are. He even starts off doing something truly gross so off the bat I assumed he would an unlikable character. But to my shock Chuck actually turned out to be a good character. He was the most sensible of the group, the second he saw a ghostly presence in the Bellows house he wanted to leave. When Stella finds the book he demands she put it back knowing full well nothing good could come from it. After they escape the house Chuck is no longer “funny” but more serious and morose, showing great concern for his friends, himself and his sister who was also cursed. His development was fast but it was very much appreciated. 

Acting for SSTTITD was decent

Zoe Margaret Colleti does fine as Stella. While not outstanding Colleti still manages to hold your attention throughout the film and not once came off as bad. She even had an exceptionally good moment here and there, though those moments are mostly in the third act.

Michael Garza, Gabriel Ruth and Austin Zajur all do well as Ramon, Auggie and Chuck. Like Auggie Ruth doesn’t seem to do much to stand out, of course though ti isn’t his fault being that he doesn’t have much to go on. Garza is similar to Colleti in that he does fine but isn’t really outstanding until the third act. Zajur does manage to stand out, poorly at first thanks to Chuck’s initial abysmal beginning but quickly becomes a far more engaging actor as his character grows.

Our supporting cast leaves very little to be desired. And why not? They’re used so little that even their characters are rather weak. Dean Norris plays Stella’s father and though memorable is pretty much wasted. Austin Abrams plays local bully Tommy and through he has a brief moment of being generally insidious he too feels forgettable. Even Natalie Ganzhorn who plays Chuck’s sister Ruth feels rather forgettable and you’d think being a relatively important character would allow her to do more.

And of course there’s the monsters and there are two that stand out in particular. First there’s fan favorite Javier Botet who plays a corpse searching for her missing toe. Because of the short run time of the stories Botet can’t really do his thing but he is still recognizable and it is appreciated that he is here. Rounding out our duo is contortionist Troy James who plays a creature called The Jangly Man a monster who contorts and can remove his head and limbs and put himself back together. James is incredibly unnerving as the character and is the luckiest of the bunch as his monster gets to be on screen the longest allowing for his full, impressive potential as the character.

Lastly the effects for SSTTITD are very well done

The primary use of effects in SSTTITD are, of course, the monsters and let me tell you the monsters look really, really good! Most look almost exactly like their illustrations, seemingly jumping right off of the pages themselves. Harold the scarecrow has a good design and his movements are eerie and believable. The Corpse looking for her toe is finely made and looks truly unnerving. The Pale Woman is absolutely unsettling to look at with her grim smiling face (one that gave many of us nightmares back in the day no doubt) and disgustingly moist looking body. What makes these monsters work so great is that they are almost entirely practical. They’re excellently made costumes that are absolutely spot on and frightening to look at. There is a minimal bit of CG used such as the bugs crawling in and out of Harold’s face or the Pale Lady blinking but these are small, look fine and help add to the design of the monsters. Which brings us to the Jangly Man. Now for the most the Jangly Man looks good. He has a cool design, a truly disturbing ability and of course Troy’s performance really brings him to life. The problem is his face. For whatever reason the filmmakers chose to have the Jangly Man’s face be CG and it’s very distracting. Of course there are moments when the Jangly Man had to be CG but those were moments of necessity. His face wasn’t necessary and it looks weird to see this contortionist body connected to a cartoon head. Other then that the effects are very good and really breathe life into the monsters and add a great level of atmosphere to the whole film. 

Final Thoughts: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is a good adaptation of a very infamous series of books. Though it would have worked better as an anthology the film still had a good story that does lend itself to an interesting sequel. The film is filled to the brim with tense moments that will make you hold your breath and quake in fear before the jump scare shocks you right back into reality. The characters are pretty good as is some of the acting and the effects and monster costumes are good. Overall it may have it’s faults but Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is an entertaining and frightening bit of nostalgic horror. 

Verdict: 3.5/5

About the Author

Good day to you, my name is Jonathan Gonzalez. For years I've loved movies and have been reviewing them for years, ever since I first saw Roger Ebert on Ebert and Roeper during my freshman year of high school for the first time. I am a graduate of Mercy College with a Bachelor's in Journalism and I have Asperger's Syndrome, something I am truly proud of.

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