Skip to main content

Scary Stories’ Aims For Young Audiences

Film is based on Alvin Schwartz’ popular and controversial horror books from 1980s

Photo credit: Lionsgate

Natalie Ganzhorn plays Ruth who faces horrors in "The Red Spot," one of the stories featured in "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."

Companion viewing

"Dead of Night" (1945)

"Black Sabbath" (1963)

"Creepshow" (1982)

"Tales From the Hood" (1995)

"Three Extremes" (2004)

"Scary Stories: A Documentary" (2015)

"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell struck delicious terror in the hearts and minds of young readers in the 1980s and 1990s. Now it arrives on the screen under the guidance of Guillermo Del Toro.

For some reason anthology films tend to be horror themed. There is something particularly appealing about a compact tale with a scary finish and packaging them all together so we get one delicious jolt after another. "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" is an anthology only in the sense that there are multiple short sub-stories that all take place in one narrative with all the same characters and with one director overseeing the whole film.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

I was too old to have grown up with "Scary Stories" and have had them be an impact on my childhood fears and nightmares. I grew up with "Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," and an unhealthy dose of Edgar Allan Poe. But I am fully aware of how these books and especially Gammell's beautifully creepy illustrations had on a generation of kids. The books also stirred controversy. The American Library Association listed them as the number one most challenged series of books of the 1990s. People objected to the violence and just general disturbing quality of the stories and images aimed at a young audience.

Photo credit: Lionsgate

One of Stephen Gammell's illustrations for Alvin Schwartz' "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark." This one is of the Pale Lady.

The books seem perfect material for Guillermo Del Toro whose films ("Cronos," "Mimic," "The Devil's Backbone") reflect a love for scary tales that also have a sense of poetry, morality, folklore, and beauty. But rather than direct the film himself, Del Toro generously chose to produce the film and to showcase a younger, up and coming director. The person he chose was André Øvredal, who directed the brilliant "The Autopsy of Jane Doe."

The film chooses to set the scary stories against the truly scary backdrop of Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968 and the war in Vietnam. The stories are set in motion by Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who decides to visit a haunted house with her friends on Halloween night and sneaks out with a book written in blood by the young girl who used to live in the house. The book then writes new stories involving Stella's friends and with horrific results.

The film makes a sincere effort to mimic the look of key scenes and characters from the books. The monsters and creatures are particularly effective and the visual style is rich. Plus the young cast is engaging and earnest. But the film's script is less impressive and feels tame and conventional compared to the books. The film definitely feels tailored to a younger audience with its PG-13 rating and while there are things for an older audience to appreciate, it just doesn't feel as layered and emotionally intense as either Øvredal's or Del Toro's best work.

"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" delivers a fun horror tale that is visually seductive but it's not something that I am likely to add to my film collection or seek out for multiple viewings. Coming from Del Toro and Øvredal I was hoping for something more.

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

Shawn Khalifa was sentenced to murder even though he was outside when his friends broke into a Riverside County home and killed a 77-year-old man. A new law could reduce his sentence — but that law is being challenged. Plus, the VA inspector general is criticizing the San Diego VA’s handling of suicide, and how the fear of a new rule might be impacting immigrant applications for public benefits.

Aired: August 9, 2019 | Transcript

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.