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SYFY WIRE reviews

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark delivers monsters and moral messages, critics say

By Josh Weiss
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Nothing gets the ol' flight or flight response going quite like baby spiders crawling out of a hole in your cheek... Ask anyone who came of age over the last 30 years what scared the living bejesus out of them as a kid and they'll probably cite Alvin Scwhartz's trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. Schwartz's ever-growing collection of folk tales and urban legends were terrifying in their own right, but they received added creep factor boost from the otherworldly illustrations of Stephen Gammell. All these years later, and the books are finally receiving the Hollywood treatment in the form of a film adaptation from Oscar-winning producer, Guillermo del Toro.

Reviews for the movie (out in theaters tomorrow, August 9) are now trickling in from critics as the embargo lifts and the general consensus is the horror flick is quite effective, expertly (and lovingly) recreating Gammell's black and white interpretations of things that go bump in the night. That said, critics do have some problems with the script, whose scattershot execution stems from the fact that Schwartz's publications are anthologies. As such, screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman had to spin the unrelated tall tales of terror into one cohesive narrative that makes sense.

Helmed by by Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Scary Stories is set in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, circa 1968. The Vietnam War is raging on and "Tricky" Dick Nixon is about to be elected president for the first time. On Halloween night, Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti) and her friends discover a book of horror stories that start coming to life and claiming the lives of kids in the town. It's similar to the recent film adaptations of Goosebumps, but without an overt comedic tinge — a decision that plays to this project's benefit. Yes, we've seen the movie, too, and can tell you that it's very much a thrilling mixture of Spielbergian coming-of-age adventure and shambling grotesque del Toro parable. Adults are utterly useless and it's up to our young heroes to save the day, but there's also a very real world lesson to be learned at the end of the day.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark co-stars Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, and Lorraine Toussaint.

Ok, it's time to close the book and find out what critics are saying about this movie...

"The original tales in Scary Stories had an insidious, pre-media homespun awe. In the film version of Scary Stories, they’re just momentary Grand Guignol tidbits — literally, in the case of 'The Big Toe' — served up like the greatest hits they are ... If the movie had simply been a collection of short tales, it might have been effective (though omnibus films are notoriously difficult to bring off, or to turn into hits). In attempting to meld the stories together and give them some sketchy coherence, the movie basically becomes an extended framing device that’s larger than any of the stories in it." -Owen Glieberman, Variety

"This big-screen adaptation of the books — which plays out, not-so-elegantly, as the first part of a trilogy — boasts Guillermo del Toro as producer and story writer. Though Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe helmer André Øvredal competently handles directorial duties, del Toro's fingerprints are all over the final product, for better and for worse ... So how about the monsters? They're alright — very much in keeping with del Toro's fresh-from-the-pages-of-my-sketchbook! ethos." -Keith Uhlich, The Hollywood Reporter

"André Øvredal brings all the creatures to life with impressive visual effects that capture the otherworldly energy of Gammell’s drawings, and he knows how to stretch out Schwartz’s often straightforward set-ups into creepy little engines of suspense. They may not always say much about the characters or have anything to do with the story, but they’re always spooky in the actual moment, and punctuate this frequently perfunctory film with genuine jolts and startles ... Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t do a disservice to the original books. When he’s telling weird supernatural tales Øvredal is clearly in his element, and the movie often works very well for several, breathless minutes at a time. But in between those excellent scares there’s a lot of filler, a lot of perfunctory plotting and a lot of mediocre character development. Scary Stories isn’t bad, and sometimes it’s really scary, but it doesn’t play like a standalone story that needed to be told." -William Bibbiani, Bloody Disgusting

"The narrative is, admittedly, mostly a delivery system for a series of set-pieces built around a handful of stories you may or may not recall from Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. You won't care, though: the set pieces are dynamite, and all your favorite characters are here ... The VFX that have been deployed to bring these creatures to life (each of them a pitch-perfect recreation of the Stephen Gammell artwork that appeared in Schwartz's short story collections) are truly grotesque. Nevermind the masterfully-executed jump scares (Øvredal's one of the very few directors who knows how to do these well) and the ominous lighting: just looking at The Pale Lady was enough to make my skin crawl. I really cannot overstate how satisfying and freakish these designs are. Put simply, they will f*** your kids up." -Scott Wampler, Birth.Movies.Death.

"André Øvredal‘s feature film adaptation of Schwartz’s beloved children’s books is heavily inspired by the Gammell’s macabre drawings, so unnervingly so that one could mistake this as a horror film for a much older audience. But Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is very much geared toward a younger audience, one that will surely embrace the film as a classic for a new generation of horror lovers. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark effectively captures the primal horror of campfire stories while doing justice by Schwartz’s creepy designs in a marriage of old-fashioned practical thrills and sleek modern effects." Hoai-Tran Bui, /FILM

"The script, credited to del Toro and Dan and Kevin Hageman, layers an allegorical commentary throughout their otherwise highly traditional tale, and while it’s laid on a bit thick at times the effect remains. The straightforward story sees young teens paying the price for entering a spooky house, but from there they’re dealing with the deadly power of history as one family’s past begins to take a toll on the town’s present. Old stories, new pains. As the real world sends young men off to die in Vietnam, as Americans prepare to vote Richard Nixon back into office, the power of the stories we tell each other comes clearer. Stories are lies, lies meant mostly to entertain, but sometimes the purpose is far more insidious." -Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects

"The film makes a point, rightly, of faithfully taking much of its more horrific imagery from Stephen Gammell's illustrations in the books, recreating a few of his most iconic panels. The Pale Lady is a standout, shuffling her large body forward on her little feet, curling her fingers, and beatifically smiling ... Øvredal is a great director of suspense, steeping every scene of terror in a great mix of dread and sick anticipation. By the time the movie gets to classic zit-horror 'The Red Spot,' you're cringing at the thought of what could possibly hatch its way out of there. Scary Stories doesn't pull punches with its more horrifying scenes either, a fine line to toe in a PG-13 movie marketed to children." -Emma Stefansky, Thrillist

"You can see ... [the] reverential approach the filmmakers took when transforming Stephen Gammell’s memorable illustrations for Schwartz’s books into living, breathing, lurking, shambling monsters. The monsters themselves don’t have a ton of screen time, but each one gets what they need to make maximum impact. There are also some nifty Easter eggs referencing other stories that don’t get specific call-outs otherwise, so pay close attention if you’re a fan of the books ... If you don’t spend too much time dwelling on the patchwork feel of the script, there is much to enjoy elsewhere, especially when it comes to the creature design." -Cheryl Eddy, i09

"At first blush, this just feels like a Final Destination-adjacent way to craft some neat jump-scare setpieces out of Schwartz’s beloved terror tales; while it’s far more than that, rest assured that Scary Stories delivers in that department at least. While it’s tough to live up to the original Stephen Gammell illustrations, the film’s production designers and creature effects artists do an admirable job of replicating that apocalyptically uncanny look of Harold the scarecrow or the wide-mouthed woman from 'The Dream' ... There’s plenty to admire about the craft and performances of much of Scary Stories." -Clint Worthington, The Spool

"The film feels itself oddly restrained, as though it wasn’t sure if it was being too scary for young kids, and therefore needed to pull back, or not scary enough for adults, so let’s make it more gruesome. 'The Red Spot' goes from queasy body horror to barely lit spider frenzy. The Jangly Man’s rotting, dismembered limbs roll and flail around to become whole – an undoubtedly macabre sight – yet its speech feels strangely comical ... Oddly enough, this disconnect feels strangely appropriate. When one considers the controversy of the Schwartz/Gammell version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the concern was more about the images than the story. So on one hand, you had horror stories that were rather tame, but on the other hand, you had images that were clearly inappropriate for the intended audience. And so, in a respect, the movie is a perfect adaptation." -Jonathan Barkan, Dread Central

"Scary Stories does a great job blending multiple stories into one film. It would have been easy to make this an anthology, and just retell the stories in the books. But the stories are often only a page or two long, and are not well formed ... But in this format, each story amounts to maybe ten minutes, with characters and mythology that have already been established. The most important part of the film is that Gammell’s drawings were well represented." -Alyse Wax,