Although “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” has gone down considerably well with audiences it might remain one of the most misunderstood movies of the year. The original books from Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell were compilations of urban legends, urban folklore, and original tales, the former of which had been shared for generations by many people. They began life as morality stories and then became campfire tales. Sure André Øvredal could have turned the books in to a normal anthology, but in the end he opts for something of more substance. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is about stories. The stories of the past. The stories we tell one another. The stories the characters tell each other to survive. The stories that can ultimately destroy us.
In l968 on Halloween night, the small town of Mill Valley is celebrating the holiday in the midst of the Vietnam War and political turmoil. Even as the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large over the denizens of the small settlement. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time–stories that have a way of becoming all too real. When four teenagers looking for a Halloween adventure find Sarah Bellows’ cursed book, her stories begin to take shape, and now horror enthusiast and aspiring writer Stella has to figure out how to beat the curse before Bellows consumes her everyone she loves.
The original books are widely regarded as some of the most controversial horror books of all time as they were originally sold to grade schoolers. What the original books did, however, was influence a new generation of horror fans and writers. It wasn’t the gore and terror that influenced new generations it was the excitement and danger of the art of storytelling. Even today when you dig in to one of the “Scary Stories…” books you can feel a tinge of danger lurking about, and André Øvredal carries that in to the feature film version. Sarah Bellows is the ultimate horror villain, a young woefully angry entity that has power of the concept of reality and uses the inner demons of the characters to destroy them one by one.
Sarah doesn’t just tell her own story she takes from the characters’ own inner demons and their own personal stories and concocts horrifying monsters of her own (set amidst the back drop of the very scary Vietnam War). Whether it’s bully Tommy who becomes the object of his own abuse, to Ramon’s confrontation with his own paralyzing fear resulting from being drafted. There’s nothing scarier than the monsters we make up in our own minds, and villain Sarah Bellows simply allows us to destroy ourselves in the process. André Øvredal recently directed the brutally scary horror film “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” and much of character of villainous Jane Doe resides in Sarah Bellows. Both are enigmatic, misunderstood, and tortured feminine elements and both have sentience that makes them horrifying enemies to confront. Although the monsters are terrifying all their own, the life Bellows injects is what helps them seep in to reality and terrorize their victims.
With the help of Guillermo Del Toro, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” watches like a horror version of “Stand By Me” that places great weight on the idea of urban legends and the magic that storytelling can bring in to our lives, good or bad. Director Øvredal and the writers place a greater emphases on the stories affecting the characters we follow through this journey to beat Sarah Bellows, especially Ramon and Stella, both of whom have unresolved pasts with their own family that keeps them in constant pain and guilt. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is an excellent horror film that promises to be included in my normal Halloween rotation. Even without the books, André Øvredal delivers another horror gem that’s a truly scary testament to the power of stories, and how they can change us for the better or for the worse.