Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Spoiler Review
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but this movie deserves a good ol’ AzarRising review. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is based on the books of the same name, or is it? I have to admit that prior to watching the movie, I reread the stories that were going to be adapted to ensure the originals were fresh in my mind.
The book series are three anthologies of kid friendly scary stories (that should be told in the dark if the titles wasn’t clear enough) and I wrote about them which you can read here, and the movie adapts six of those stories in an overarching theme set in 1968. Three friends, Stella, Chuck, and Augie meet Ramon while fleeing a bully. The four make their way to a haunted house once owned by the Bellows family, who practically founded the town with their papermill, where we learn through heavy exposition that a Bellows daughter, Sarah, hung herself with her own hair over a hundred years ago after she was accused of poisoning the kids of the town. During her life, her family kept her locked in a basement dungeon and now her ghost is known to tell stories to any brave kids that would ask her, but legend tells that those kids die later that night. Stella and her friends find the Sarah’s book, that is rumored to be written in the blood of the kids she killed. While in the Sarah’s former prison-like room, the bully, Tommy and his date, Ruth (who also happens to be Chuck’s sister) find them. Tommy locks them all in the dungeon, including Ruth, leaving them for dead.
Tommy arrives at his family’s farm home drunk, but his mother forces him to deliver eggs to a neighbor, a chore he forgot to do earlier. On his way through the cornfield he passes Harold the scarecrow that he and his friends frequently abuse. This is the first story that gets properly adapted, and as the events unfold, Stella and the friends see the story being written in blood. Tommy, in his drunken stupor gets lost in the cornfield, repeatedly passing Harold, only to realize the scarecrow is following him. Tommy tries to flee after seeing Harold begins to move on his own, and chases him. Unfortunately for Tommy, he’s met by the sharp end of a pitchfork. Tommy is able to take a few steps, but as he exits the cornfield straw begins growing out of his mouth, ears, and eyes. Eventually, he fully replaces Harold as the scarecrow.
It’s a great scene, and the scarecrow transformation Tommy undergoes is beautiful in its horridness, however to call this a loose adaptation of the story it is inspired by is a gross exaggeration. Harold looks almost picture perfect from Stephen Gammell’s terrifying art, however the scene has almost nothing to do with the original story.
Back at the Bellows mansion, a smoky black presence unlocks the door, allowing the teens to escape. The following night, Stella and Ramon witness the book write another story based off of ‘The Big Toe’, this one is about Augie. He’s home alone, searching for something to eat, and finds a stew in the fridge. Stella tries to warn him through a walkie talkie, but he dismisses it as a prank. Eating from the pot, he finds a toe. Spitting it up, Augie hears Stella’s reading of the book echoed in his home by a disembodied voice; “Where’s my toe!?” Suddenly that voice is no longer disembodied, as a ghastly woman with rotting racial features materializes in the hallway leading to the kitchen. She keeps repeating the question, “Where’s my toe?” Augie runs away, making his way to his bedroom. With nowhere else to hide, he slides under his bed hoping to avoid the ending predicted in Sarah Bellows’ book. After the dead woman forces her way into his room, still asking “Where’s my toe?” Augie terrified for his life, scans the room from beneath his bed, but is unable to find the woman. She stopped asking her question, and her bloody foot was nowhere to be found. Thinking he was finally safe, Augie slowly begins to crawl out when the dead woman grabs his feet from beneath the bed, and drags him back and through the wall, never to be seen again.
Unlike ‘Harold’, this scene closely follows its literary inspiration, “The Big Toe.” They altered the story slightly to fit the confines of the larger narrative being told in the movie. What’s interesting about this one, is that in the book, “The Big Toe” doesn’t depict the dead woman that stalks Augie, the image is of a young boy diggin up the toe. It’s hard to say that the shown monster is inspired by the story art, but it’s equally difficult to deny that she doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic of the rest of the artwork.
The following day, Stella and Ramon inform Ruth and Chuck about what happened to Augie. Ruth doubts anything supernatural is going on, and leaves the group because she’s starring in the school play that night. The remaining three decide to investigate the life of Sarah Bellows. As they’re at the town newspaper, a new story begins being written starring Ruth. They rush to the school in an attempt to save Chuck’s sister. What Ruth thought was a pimple, turns out to be a spider bite she received while trapped in the dungeon. The boil grew moment by moment and Ruth goes to the bathroom trying to pop it, when suddenly a spider leg juts out of it. Terrified, she tries to pull at it, but the boil bursts in an explosion of thousands of spiders. Throughout it all the black smoky figure creeps ever closer to Ruth. Stella, Chuck, and Ramon arrive in time to save Ruth, but the damage is done and it appears Ruth won’t survive with her mind intact.
“The Red Spot” story was very simple, and the scene captured virtually every element of it without compromise. Visually the art for the piece wasn’t anything impressive, but the way it was translated to screen is one of the few instances where it looked significantly better on screen than on page.
The investigating trio are led to an elderly woman who, as a child used to live in the Bellows’ House, and was believed to have insight on Sarah’s life. Indeed she did, Lulu informed the kids that Sarah died in the hospital, not in her dungeon room. As such, they make their way to the hospital to further their research. During this time, Chuck mentions this recurring nightmare he’s been having about a pale lady in a red room.
When the kids ask the hospital staff about Sarah Bellows, they learn that the records are kept in the R.E.D. room. Chuck refuses to enter, as Stella and Ramon proceed. Within the records room, they find a recording of Sarah and her doctor/brother, Ephraim Bellows where we all learn that Sarah didn’t in fact poison the kids of the town, it was actually the mercury leaking from her family’s papermill. During this revelation, Chuck finds himself being chased by several security staff members. Chuck alludes them, however they sound the alarm, and the lights turn red. This triggers Chuck’s fear of his nightmare, and he’s suddenly being slowly stalked by a large pale smiling lady.
This is the next story from the books, “The Pale Lady.” Chuck finds the lady in every hallway he runs into, as she slowly creeps towards him. Slowly, slowly, slowly is the key word. Eventually, the lady is right in front of him no matter which direction he turns. With nowhere to run, the Pale Lady hugs Chuck, and absorbs him into her body. Oddly, Chuck’s tale is the only one to take place during the day.
“The Pale Lady” scene was creepy, the slow burn of the stalking built up suspense, however there were a few draw backs. The woman’s look, while book accurate, isn’t all that impressive nor scary. The bigger issue I had was the ending; Chuck being absorbed by the Pale Lady felt hollow. As the scene relates to the story, it was also hollow, only passively similar to the book.
Stella and Ramon are arrested for trespassing. While at the police station, they explain everything that happened to the police chief, however he obviously doesn’t believe them. We learn that Ramon is a draft dodger, his brother came back from the war in pieces. That night, the chief sees another story being written, this one starring Ramon.
“Me Tie Dough-ty Walker” is an original story for the movie, and is based on one that Ramon heard as a kid. The Jangly-Man is an accumulation of human body parts that are able to join together into a large Frankenstein’s monster type of... monster. The Jangly-Man kills the police chief and begins making his way through the cell bars. Stella is able to grab the keys off the chief’s body and free them both. Ramon rationalizes that to stop all of this from happening, Stella needs to tell Sarah about the truth of her death and the poisoning of the kids. He’ll lead the Jangly-Man away from her.
Stella returns to the Bellows House, and is somehow transported into the body of Sarah Bellows back when her family was locking her up. She meets a young Lulu, and loses her glasses, which Ramon find in the modern time as he’s still being chased. Stella gets locked up and makes a deal with Sarah. She agrees to tell the truth about Sarah if she’ll stop killing kids.
Happy ending, Stella and her father take in Ruth who survived with her mental health in place. Apparently, Stella’s dad adopted her because her parents didn’t want Ruth because of her scarred face. Ramon was shipped off to war, most likely to die, Chuck and Augie are still missing, but Stella has the book and plans to use it to free them.
This is a movie I’ve been waiting for, for almost my entire life, and it was... ok? It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, and it did succeed in adapting several of the stories faithfully. The visuals were indeed terrifying, and felt like a decent attempt at bringing the books to life, if only partially. Good, but could have been so much better. The best thing about the movie, which should come as no surprise since it was produced by Guillermo Del Torro, was how beautiful the horror elements were in this movie. Harold, the Pale Lady, the red spot, and the woman missing her toe all looked great, even though the Pale Lady’s awkward smirk removed any element of horror the suspense of the scene built up. Also, not surprising is the fact that the least impressive monsters were the ones created specifically for the movie. The Jangly-Man was an interesting looking creature and served as a nice ‘final boss’, but the stitched together zombie motif is almost comical at times as the various body parts roll around and stitch themselves together. He feels like he would fit better in the Brandon Frasier Mummy movies. When Stella confronts Sarah in the dungeon, we finally see Sarah, her features shifts between a few different looks, but nothing unique that we haven’t seen in plenty of other horror movies.
Overall, I’d give the movie a 65 out of 100.
Keep reading and remember to enjoy life.