I am a big fan of the old school special effects.
Do not get me wrong modern day special effects like CGI etc can be amazing when done well and either hilarious or uncanny valley when done poorly. I am not here to bash CGI I just want to gush for a moment about old school costumes, and puppetry etc.
These effects have a very warm place in my heart, probably because I was born in the mid 80’s and so spent a lot of my pre-teen years watching films like Dark Crystal, Legend, Gremlins and Labyrinth. Either way, I love the fact that these effects are ‘real’ as in the actors can see and respond to an actual ‘creature’ as opposed to people n green body suits covered in ping pong balls. They make eye contact; they physically touch the creature, and it shows in their performance.
It is for this reason that I became a fan of Guillermo del Toro, his version of Hellboy was amazing, Pan labyrinth was fantastic and his creatures in all his films are of such high quality it is like they were ‘real’.
So, when I saw he was attached to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I was thrilled. I could not wait to see what he did with this and I was not disappointed.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was released in August 2019, directed by André Øvredal, and is based on the children’s book series of the same name.
The film is set in 1968, and takes place in a small town, Mill Valley in America. There are four main characters, but the film opens with three of them Stella, Auggie, and Chuck, going out on Halloween and playing a prank on the local bully Tommy. They flee from Tommy and hide in the drive through theatre, in the car of the fourth main character Ramón.
Once Tommy has left the four go to explore a local haunted house, the Bellows house. Inside they find a book of scary stories written by Sarah Bellows who is something of a local legend and is thought to have committed suicide.
Stella takes the book and when back at home she reads a story from it called ‘Harold’ the story is being written as she reads it. While she reads Tommy is perused and killed by Harold in the same manner described in Stella’s story aka by being turned into a scarecrow. Stella and Ramón later find a scarecrow dressed in Tommy’s clothes and Stella is convinced that this is Tommy, but no one believes her.
The next night a new story is written into the book this time Auggie finds himself the main character and experiences first-hand the events of “The Big Toe”. Auggie is pulled under his bed by a ‘creature’ looking for its big toe. The remaining friends are now more believing of Stella and they attempt to destroy the book but alas that cannot be done. So, they start to learn more about Sarah Bellows to find out why this is happening and how to stop it. During their research, another story appears in the book and Chucks sister Ruth falls prey to it. While she survives, she ends up mentally traumatised and institutionalised.
The group continue to hunt for clues about Sarah and unveil that Sarah was tortured by her brother to cover up the fact that her family was poisoning the towns water with mercury. The family blamed Sarah for the poisoning and dubbed her insane when she tried to reveal the truth. Chuck is attacked by the Pale Lady in another story and Stella and Ramón are arrested for trespassing. In the station Ramón reveals to Stella that he is a draft dodger due to his fear of witnessing his brother go off to war and come home in a box. The station is attacked by the Jangly Man who is after Ramón. They escape the station with Ramón luring the monster away while Stella returns to the Bellows house to appease Sarah’s ghost.
In the house Stella is shown exactly what the family did to Sarah and she promises she will tell the true story about what happened, clearing Sarah’s name as a murderer, but only if Sarah stops hurting people now. Sarah is eventually happy with this promise, though she forces Stella to write the story in her own blood while Ramón is fighting the Jangly Man.
The story ends with Ramón going off to war, Ruth has recovered and come home and Stella resolving to rescue her friends from their fates inside the book.
As I said at the beginning, I love the way this film is presented, I love the monster’s and the absolute skill involved in both creating them and making them ‘come alive’ in the film. They all move differently, they all sound incredible and they all freaked me the hell out.
That being said there is a lot more to like in this film than just the creature design.
The characters are not particularly deep or well developed save for Stella and Ramón. The others tend to fall a little flat and are basically cannon fodder. But just because they are not well developed does not mean they are not good. They are well acted and believable characters with no overuse of typical American teen stereotypes. A good example of this is Ruth, she is pretty and feminine o could have easily fallen prey to the ‘pretty, popular girl is an asshole’ stereotype often seen in these kinds of films, but she does not. she sticks up for her dorky younger brother and while she does not get tons of screen time the time, she does get she is shown to be a realistic, thinking, breathing person as opposed to a cardboard cut-out or stereotype.
The plot, while something we have seen before, vengeful ghost wants revenge and just needs to be reasoned with, is well done. Sarah’s backstory is touching and unique enough that it held me, I was interested in why she was doing what she was doing and when it was revealed and explained I was satisfied with it. As I said it is something we have seen before but that does not mean it cannot still be good.
The film employs many different types of scares, obviously the monsters are the main types of fright, with all the monster’s connecting in various ways to the characters. But the film also employs intrinsic fears, especially in certain locations like the Bellows house and the hospital, with darkness etc being used well and in Ruth’s story with the spiders (eww). There is also an interesting look at societal tensions with Ramón. His fear of death and war are both understandable and sympathetic. The pressure he is under to go to Vietnam is an interesting aspect of the film and not something I was expecting in a film about monsters coming to life, but it was a nice parallel. The police’s attitude towards him and even the three friend’s attitudes towards him at first shows a vastly different type of fear. The pressure put on young men at that time to effectively go to die was horrendous and was a nice dose of reality in this monster film.
The film also uses various types of atmosphere very well, you get various occasions of gross out horror, with the Big Toe story and Ruth’s little spider infestation. Each moment is in the film that made me cringe in the best way. Then you have the slightly more classic atmosphere of spooky settings and monsters in the dark.
The stakes are well used through out with tension rising and falling in the right places. You have the fact that these kids are effectively fighting for their lives against monster’s that no one is really going to believe exist. So, they are alone, scared and pursued constantly throughout the film. The ticking clock aspect of the mystery is also a great form of tension in the film. Having to try and find out Sarah’s backstory, to understand what happened in order to stop the pursuit/stories adds a nice balance of past and present terror.
Overall, this is a great film, visually its amazing and story wise it will hold you throughout. I highly recommend giving this a go if you have not already.