All those frightening tales kids tell around the campfires to spook their friends come to terrifying life in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a new film from producer Guillermo del Toro. It’s based on a series of children’s books from the 1980s by Alvin Schwartz, who drew upon common folklore and popular urban legends for his scary stories.
Remember that classic campfire ditty, “the worms crawl in the worms crawl out/the worms play pinochle on your snout”? So does Schwartz. It’s the basis for his scary story “The Hearse Song.” You’ll also find variations on the killer with a hook for a hand who preys on couples necking in parked cars. So too the hapless babysitter who discovers the call is coming from inside the house, along with plenty of other frightening fare. (The 2018 documentary Scary Stories delves more deeply into Schwartz’s source material.)
While the books are technically aimed at kids, the material is pretty dark, which is why the series has often been listed among the most challenged books by the American Library Association. People have objected to the violence in Scary Stories series—and illustrator Stephen Gammell’s genuinely disturbing, surreal images only add to the potential nightmares. In fact, publisher Harper Collins released a new 30th-anniversary edition in 2011 that didn’t include Gammell’s original illustrations, causing an uproar among longtime fans.
In short, the books are perfect fodder for del Toro, whose visually distinctive work has often centered on fairy tales and fantasy (Pan’s Labyrinth), classic horror (Crimson Peak, Mama), monsters (Hellboy, The Shape of Water), and the like. He signed on with CBS Films in 2016 to develop and produce a feature film adapted from Schwartz’s Scary Stories series, and he eventually tapped André Øvredal (Trollhunter) to direct. Del Toro has said it’s not a standard anthology film; the various stories form a cohesive whole.
Based on the trailer, del Toro has more than done justice to this classic series. It hits all the right notes: the spooky mansion on the edge of town, possibly haunted by the Bellows family; a cursed book that belonged to young Sarah Bellows; curious pre-teens who can’t leave well enough alone; and oodles of terrifying ghosts and monsters, all apparently springing from the psyches of the targeted victims. “You don’t read the book. The book reads you,” a shaken Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti) says at one point.
Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark hits theaters August 9, 2019.
Listing image by YouTube/CBS Films