In 1999, the seminal film The Mummy bestowed great wisdom on an entire generation: “You must not read from the book.”
It’s sound advice. Bad things happen when you read from spooky books dug up in forgotten corners of the Earth. Sadly, the kids from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were never able to benefit from the life lessons gleaned from the adventures of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Based on Alvin Schwartz’ 1981 collection of urban legends and short horror tales, and the even spookier accompanying illustrations by Stephen Gammel, the Guillermo del Toro-produced film opens on Halloween night, circa 1968.
In the small Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley, lifelong friends Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are getting ready to trick or treat. Everything about the opening sequence — predictably cued up by Donavan’s “Season of The Witch,” but it’s such a banger that I’ll let it slide — screams of quaint small town nostalgia. Kids ride their bikes through calm neighborhood streets and communicate via walkie talkie (there’s definitely a Stranger Things vibe to this friend group); young ladies wear curlers in anticipation of a night out with jocks in varsity jackets; and TV dinner trays still feel like a novel way to eat.
But of course, even small towns have their demons. When a fraught encounter with local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) has our heroes looking for a place to hide, they find it in new guy Ramon’s (Michael Garza) car, parked at the drive-in for a viewing of Night of the Living Dead. Eager to get to know him better, Stella suggests they take a trip up to the local haunted house, a gothic mansion formerly owned by the Bellows family, whose daughter, Sarah, was rumored to have poisoned children back in the 19th century. That’s where they find her book of stories, dark tales she would weave to drive anyone who heard them to insanity.
It’s here that one might insert the sage insights from The Mummy. Stella, an aspiring horror writer herself, plucks the book from its shelf and takes it home. Big mistake. Huge! As Stella soon realizes, “you don’t read the book, the book reads you.” Every night, a new story appears on the blank pages of the book, spelling out in blood the terrifying fate awaiting each person who has come into contact with it.
It’s through that framing device that Schwartz’s stories come to life. Among them: “The Dream,” best-known for its ghost-like uncanny villain known as The Pale Lady, and “The Red Spot,” which has Chuck’s sister Ruth driven out of her mind with fear when a spider bite on her cheek suddenly erupts, birthing thousands of tiny bugs. (I can’t tell you what happened next because I almost blacked out.)
Growing up in the ‘90s, these stories were a ubiquitous part of any sleepover, or late-night camp gatherings. In the dark, with only a flashlight or the glimmer of embers to keep the monsters of your mind at bay, you’d feel them lurking around the warm circle formed by your friends. Directed by André Øvredal, and produced by the king of horror himself, del Toro, the film retains much of what made the original tales so scary. They’re your worst fears, embodied in twisted limbs and gaping maws.
Øvredal keeps the suspense taut, emphasizing the slow squeak of a doorknob, the raspy hinges as the darkness pushes through, and even more potent: long, lingering silences. His camera, often tilted upwards much as you’d hold a flashlight for added shadow effect, provides a striking frame for Stella, Auggie, Chuck, and Ramon’s fear.
Less effective is the narrative used to tie all the stories together. Each terrifying moment gives way to a lull as we wait for the next one to strike. The screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman is the weakest link in the film, their clunky dialogue and subplots watering down the kinetic energy of watching these horrifying things unfold visually.
One compelling addition, however, is the looming presence of Richard Nixon, whose symbolism as a real-life monster sending kids — and in Ramon’s case, people of color — to their deaths in Vietnam is subtly handled, and powerful. The intolerance and suspicion faced by Ramon also serves as a connecting thread to our own political climate, in which immigrants are being reviled by the right wing as dangerous agitators.
Putting women’s stories — Stella and Sara are arguably the two protagonists — front and center is a strong choice. Without spoiling the twist, the film makes an interesting point about the consequences of gaslighting, and repressed female rage that feels like a fresh addition to a genre so often geared towards young men. But most important is the idea that words have power. True or false, they have the ability to impact our reality. “Stories heal. Stories hurt,” Stella says at the beginning of the movie. “If we repeat them often enough, they become true.”
That message hits especially hard in a time rife with rumors, malicious gossip and so-called “fake news,” which, through repeated exposure, have threatened to dismantle our very conception of what is “real.”
In the end, the scariest stories are the ones that live within ourselves.