One of my favorite movies of 2019, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a new Halloween classic that audiences of all ages can enjoy together.
I absolutely adored this movie when I first saw it in a theater this summer and found myself enjoying it even more when rewatching more recently on Blu-ray.
Based on the three-book series by Alvin Schwartz and its accompanying illustrations by Stephen Gammell, the movie weaves three of the best known stories in with a new one conceived for the film adaptation, with an additional main narrative takes place on Halloween and the two days following. Full disclosure: I’ve never read the books and only even learned if their existence in my coverage of this film, but Gammell’s creepy images are all over the internet and it’s easy to see why they haunted those who saw them as kids.
The film opens to the tune of Donovan’s classic “Season of the Witch” (and it ends with Lana Del Rey’s cover of the same song over the credits) in small town Mill Valley in 1968. We are introduced to the main characters as they are putting on their Halloween costumes.
The main plot is about the ghost of an abused girl, Sarah Bellows (played by Kathleen Pollard), whose book of scary stories quite literally writes the worst nightmare of anyone who reads it, and then brings it all to life.
My favorite of the four “stories” is definitely the one about Harold the scarecrow, who righteously sticks it to the town bully in a creatively disturbing and definitely satisfying way. I’m ready for a spinoff film all about Harold.
Director Andre Ovredal is one of the best filmmakers in the current horror landscape, first breaking through with 2010’s Trollhunter and then following it up with The Autopsy of Jane Doe in 2016. As with those prior films, Ovredal succeeds in creating a world realistic enough to be our own, and yet just supernatural enough to transport us to somewhere new.
Zoe Colletti is outstanding as our instantly likable hero, Stella, also a writer like Sarah, who is dealing with her mom recently leaving her and her father. It’s Halloween in the last autumn of her childhood, and she’s going out with her pals Chuck and Auggie, played by Austin Zajur and Gabriel Rush, respectively, for some harmless trickery
The gang soon ends up at the local drive in, where Night of the Living Dead is believably playing, which leads them to the car of teen rebel/draft dodger Ramon, played by Michael Garza. When the four of them decide to go the haunted home of Sara Bellows, they find her book, and you can guess what happens next.
Natalie Ganzhorn makes the most of her limited screen time as Chuck’s older sister, Ruth, who finds herself in one of the first book’s stories, The Red Spot. , which was featured prominently the film’s trailers and posters, and is easily one of the best scenes.
There are clear themes of loss of innocence – both for Stella and her friends, and also for America itself – threaded throughout the period piece, and the Halloween atmosphere practically bubbles with warm nostalgia.
And much like the Amblin films that inspired it, there are very real consequences for even the main kids, and death is not shied away from.
Among the Blu-ray’s bonus features is the six-minute featurette “Retro Horror”, in which Ovredal talks about his intention to create a loving throwback to those Amblin movies. In discussing the sometimes relentless tension of the film, Ovredal explains, “Dread and suspense is this wonderful that only exists in horror.”
In the five-minute “Dark Tales” featurette, executive producer Guillermo Del Toro talks about how fairy tales and horror go hand in hand.
“The Bellows Construct” is a four-minute behind the scenes look at Sarah Bellows’ haunted house, where astonishing detail was used, including devil motifs on the wallpaper, which was actually real in the 1880s, when the house would have been built.
The best of the extras is the “Creatures from the Shadows” featurette, which focuses on all of the awesome practical creatures and the insane attention to even the smallest details to properly translate the art of the books, as they looked, to come to life. From the chains on Sarah’s “straight jacket dress” to Harold being as close and faithful to the illustration as possible, every design aspect is covered. I was delighted to learn that all of the film’s creatures were shot with actual practical performers, with certain digital enhancements added later.
In discussing Harold’s big scene, Ovredal says, “To finally get to do a proper Halloween scene with a scarecrow chasing a guy through a cornfield, that’s an iconic moment.” I would wholeheartedly agree that this indeed an iconic Halloween moment in the history of cinema.
The 25-minute “Mood Reels” includes seven parts, one from each week of the shoot, featuring early edits and some unused footage that Ovredal would put together each week as part of his creative process.
There are also some very brief set visits to the Halloween night scene and the asylum, which was apparently actually haunted.
In one of the featurettes, Del Toro comments on the significance of setting the film in 1968, “a time when the printed word and oral transmission of stories was still important.”
There is power, and loads of vintage Halloween fun, in these stories, not to mention endless franchise potential and a wealth of mythology left to explore, and I can’t wait for the next chapter.
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