The middle grade books accused of warping the minds of a generation, the late-twentieth-century Tales from the Crypt, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, finally made it to the cinema in 2019. Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell presented the original collections as folk literature, drawing on urban legends, old yarns, and traditional folklore. The books have become classics, despite the concerns of some parents and school boards.1
The movie creates a larger frame in which to place the horror. It begins Halloween Night, 1968, in a small town haunted by a mysterious figure known for her scary stories.... And alleged to have been a killer of children.
After harassing some bullies2 on Halloween, a group of friends and their newfound ally escape to the local haunted house (of course they do) where they find a cursed book (naturally) in a hidden room (which no one else has found in the decades since the house had been abandoned). The book starts "writing" horrific tales that come true in their small community, with fatal results. Can our small band of teens stop the dark forces they've unleashed?
Those scary stories summon a number of monsters, designed to be both frightening and outrageous. Despite characters that trend clichéd and conventional gothic trappings, it proves more original than one might expect.
Some filmmakers would have gone for the obvious and tried to make a horror anthology film. The problem with that is the "Scary Stories" generally don't run long and most wouldn't bear padding. Many of the source tales include notes regarding the gestures and surprise elements that would accompany a real-world telling-- without which, they wouldn't be very effective. Instead of an anthology, del Toro and company developed a script that permitted them to showcase a few of the stories in the context of a broader plot. The results prove a lot better than, I suspect, an anthology film based on this material would have been.
The film also features excellent production, strong location shooting3, effective use of music, and a generally strong cast. Zoe Margaret Colletti gives an impressive central performance.
The plot keeps things moving and it ties the tales together, but it's a little chaotic and it leads to an ending that's both too pat and, simultaneously, gestures a little too overtly to its inevitable sequel. The script also overdoes its thematic elements and social commentary. A couple of the themes feel like they belong in the film. But include too many-- Vietnam, racism, the role of women, pollution, corporate greed, the nature and purpose of storytelling-- and they start to feel forced. The stories themselves have enough inherent resonance, as evidenced by the success of the book series.
In the end, we have a passably entertaining, (hard) PG-rated Halloween view, unsuited for younger children but more family-friendly than many horror movies. If you seek something within those perimeters, I recommend it.
Director: André Øvredal
Writers: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton, and Marcus Dunstan
Adapted from the book series by Alvin Schwartz
Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza as Ramon Morales
Gabriel Rush as Auggie Hilderbrandt
Austin Abrams as Tommy Milner
Dean Norris as Roy Nicholls
Gil Bellows as Chief Turner
Austin Zajur as Chuck Steinberg
Natalie Ganzhorn as Ruth Steinberg
Lorraine Toussaint as Lou Lou
Ajanae Stephenson as Lou Lou (8 yrs)
Kathleen Pollard as Sarah Bellows
Deborah Pollitt as Mrs. Steinberg
Victoria Fodor as Mrs. Milner
Marie Ward as Mrs. Hilderbrandt
Mark Steger as Harold the Scarecrow / Pale Lady
Javier Botet as Big Toe Corpse
Troy James as Jangly Man
Kyle Labine as Deputy Hobbs
David Tompa as Doctor
Karen Glave as Claire Baptiste
Stephanie Belding as Reception Nurse
Hume Baugh as Deodat Bellows
Jane Moffat as Delanie Bellows
Will Carr as Ephraim Bellows
Amanda Smith as Gertrude Bellows
Brandon Knox as Harold Bellows
Matt Smith as Mr. Steinberg
1. The three compilations, published in 1981, 1984, and 1991 all proved quite successful with middle-grade/YA readers, but not necessarily with their adult supervisors and mentors. The American Library Association identifies the series as the most-challenged American books from the 1980s.
2. While this is revenge for past bullying and the main bully proves completely unsympathetic, our mostly-sympathetic protagonists literally put people-- including innocent bystanders-- at risk of life and limb. It turns out to be an interesting bit of foreshadowing.
3. I really enjoyed the fact that the film was shot local to me. The movie takes place in Pennsylvania, 1968, but they filmed in and around southern Ontario, with most of the locations an hour's drive (give or take) from my house. The spooky Bellows Manor is actually Petrolia, Ontario's Fairbanks House aka Sunnyside, a local landmark.
For Behold a Pale Horse: The 2021 Halloween Horrorquest