October means spooky season and anyone raised in the 80s-90s likely remembers the amazing book “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz. These stories were both spooky and silly, but I think what most remember are the haunting illustrations that accompanied these stories.
You can imagine my delight a few years back when it was announced horror icon Guillermo del Torro would be involved in the film adaptation. “Two tickets immediately, please!” However, when the film debuted in 2019 to mixed reviews, I sighed heavily and relegated it to a DVD or streaming viewing sometime down the road.
A few nights back, the wife and I stumbled upon it on Peacock, turned the lights off, and snuggled in for what we hoped would be a spooky, good time.
We were disappointed.
Almost none of this film works
Set in the 1960s, the story centers around Stella, Auggie, and Chuck in Smalltown, USA. These three nerds prepare for Halloween shenanigans and Chuck is determined to take down the school bully Tommy. After giving him a taste of his own medicine, the trio hightail it into the drive-in and end up hiding in the car of mysterious Ramon, a new kid passing through town. Tommy and his goons find and threaten them with a baseball bat before other patrons force them to leave. Stella then invites Ramon to a local haunted house where we learn about Sarah Bellows, the legendary ghost whose family horribly mistreated her.
Legend has it, if you enter the home and ask Sarah to tell you a scary story, she’ll tell you one from her book of stories. The four of them get trapped in Sarah’s old room in the basement and Tommy throws Chuck’s sister Ruth in with them after she protests. An unseen force frees them from the basement and they find Ramon’s car vandalized outside.
Did you forget the source material?
Now you may be asking yourself, “How is this ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’?” Because that’s exactly what I thought too. Eventually we get into some of the stories from the book – the gist of them anyway – followed by some very violent and frightening scenes. The story then centers around Sarah’s stories being written in real time about the various townsfolk and main characters with the endings usually being their grisly deaths.
Unfortunately, this film doesn’t work on many levels. The story feels forced around the “Scary Stories” framework. None of them feel motivated. One of the stories used is “The Big Toe”, a super creepy story about a woman who digs up a toe in her garden to use in a soup and then the “owner” of the toe comes for her to collect it. This has little pay off other than “here’s a story and a character is dead. Moving on.” The “Scary Stories” also don’t really lend themselves to film because most of the endings are jump scares intended to be delivered with a flashlight under your face in your grandmother’s basement.
The acting also isn’t great. About a third of the way through, I said, “This is starting to feel like a Nickelodeon film.” The pacing is inconsistent with peaks and valleys of exciting action and dull dialogue between two teenagers. Character development is limited to the main four, leaving the adults in the film to fend for themselves on the fringes with little to do. Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad” fame plays Stella’s father and I’m not entirely sure he has a name in the film. Sheriff Turner is an antagonist for Ramon because, apparently, Ramon is a draft dodger?
This leads into the setting of the film: small town America in the 60s. Why are we here? What does this have to do with anything that’s happening? Sure, Harold the Scarecrow works in a small town, but did they really set the entire film in this time and place for one of the stories?
That said, the film does include a few of my favorite stories, namely “The Big Toe”, “The Red Spot”, and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!”, but as mentioned, none of them are used as effectively as I’d have hoped.
A sequel? Really?
All in all, this was a sad attempt to adapt these stories for the big screen. There is talk of a sequel, which does not give me hope it will be any better as any details of the plot are still kept secret. As always, I hope the filmmakers prove me wrong and these beloved spooky tales get the big screen adaptations they deserve. But this one is skippable.
Rating 1.5 out of 5 Snack Packs
Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor and writer in NYC. He loves spooky season and talking about horror movies. Follow him on Twitter if you want to chat: @lincolnlhayes.