The sole exception to the rule about something being scarier in your imagination then when given physical form is the infamous collection of short horror stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The book’s illustrations, done by Stephen Gammell, are uniformly terrifying, somehow exceeding the worst images you could conjure up on your own.
For André Øvredal’s film adaptation, that’s an automatic leg up, as the film remains fairly faithful to Gammell’s illustrations. The scariest part of the film sees the pale lady of “The Dream” brought to life. A massive, swollen figure with stringy black hair and soulless spots for eyes, she looks, note for note, exactly the way she does in Gammell’s art. If you’re at all familiar with the book, you’ll have the image of her burned into your brain. If you’re not, I’m including a picture here so that we’ll all be suffering together.
She’s just as petrifying in motion, to the point that I worried I would have nightmares. (I haven’t … yet.) Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that one scare, but it still feels like an accomplishment that anyone could come close to capturing the bone-deep horror of these illustrations.
The short stories are, with middling effectiveness, tied together as stories begin written by the vengeful ghost of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) to dispatch the inhabitants of Mill Valley shortly after the Halloween of 1968. The haunting begins when horror buff Stella (Zoe Coletti) and her friends, joker Chuck (Austin Zajur), pedant Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and dreamy newcomer Ramón (Michael Garza), find themselves in a haunted house.
Local legend has it that Sarah, now long dead, had been kept hidden away by her family, and told scary stories to the local children through the wall of her bedroom. Anyone who heard her tales, however, swiftly died, leading to the townspeople demanding her execution. Fascinated by all things scary, Stella takes Sarah’s book of stories from the house, only to discover that, every night, a new story begins to write itself — containing the names of the people around her.
The pale lady aside, the best thing about the film is its cast. Coletti is terrific, as are Zajur, Rush, Garza, and Natalie Ganzhorn, as Chuck’s sister Ruth. They all fall into archetypes, sure, but play them with such charm that it hardly matters.
It’s also notable that the archetypes that Stella and Ramón embody have been updated. The horror nerd is no longer a side character — Stella is front and center, with Vincent Price posters all over her walls and an encyclopedic knowledge of Night of the Walking Dead. Ramón, who resembles a young Gregory Peck, is dealing not only with the haunts but with racist harassment from the local bullies.
It’s in these details that the pros and cons of Scary Stories’ original medium become clear. The film, which is set in 1968, uses the Vietnam War and the presidential election as its backing, and turns the scary stories into a way of addressing how adults fail children, and the way mistakes repeat themselves throughout history. It’s a depth that’s missing from the short stories, but the simplicity of the original text, in turn, makes them more effective horror.
Arguably, that’s not the ultimate intention, as the movie’s target audience (if I had to guess) seems to be young adults and those just getting into horror, but that mildness still feels like a letdown. It also feels grating when the finale swerves conspicuously towards franchise territory, letting go of what feels earnest about the story for the sake of ensuring the opportunity for sequel money down the line.
The lack of any such trappings or commercial regard is part of the original text’s strength. There’s nothing there but the scares, and it hardly feels like coincidence that the scariest on-screen adaptation is also the simplest. Horror can tell stories larger than those that just generate screams, and it doesn’t have to twist itself into knots in order to work. The movie tries to do too much, ultimately failing to do any of it well. If you’ll excuse the pun, it just can’t seem to find a happy medium.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in theaters now.