Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Guillermo Del Toro's Scary Stories - a Monster Review!
When I first heard that the beloved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was to be adapted as a live action film, I have to say I had my doubts. The series was, after all, just a collection of unrelated public domain campfire tales, and it was really only the beautifully grisly, ethereal watercolors by Stephen Gammell for which they were best remembered. How anyone, even the same guy behind Pan's Labyrinth, could really do that justice in a Hollywood production was kind of beyond me, and beyond a lot of other people if early reaction articles were any indication.
But having seen it only a couple of days ago, I can attest that this movie not only incorporates stories and imagery from the book into a single, coherent narrative, but one that will likely go down as a Halloween classic for years to come. Everything you could want in a spooky, creepy seasonal adventure is present; the obvious Halloween timeframe, a spooky soundtrack riddled with takes on The Hearse Song, genuine dread, cool looking monsters and that sort of darkly whimsical, childhood adventure feel that directors have kept trying to recapture with media like Stranger Things and even IT.
The movie is also PG-13, which in America at least means that a lot of children who would typically be barred by their parents from other scary movies will get their chance to watch something that still offers up some hardcore horror on par with anything R-rated. On the flip side, that means this might be a more intense and graphic movie than you really wanted going in, so bear that in mind if you were looking for something leaning more to the whimsical dark fantasy side of things.
There are only a few monsters in the movie, but they're all pretty stellar. Reviewing them will necessitate some SPOILERS, but I'm going to forego showing actual screenshots wherever possible. Even with the plot spoiled, the way the movie translates the artwork is well worth the viewing.
SPOILERS (but not too many) AHEAD!!!
This classic spooky tale was the first one in the original books to actually creep me out; it was the description of the scarecrow slowly growing, sometimes grunting, and eventually trotting around on the rooftop that really got to me. None of that is incorporated into the film, but as you saw in the poster, Harold's design is spot-on except for the empty stomach area. This is because, when you think about it, the illustration in the book probably WASN'T supposed to be Harold, but one of Harold's victims set up as a scarecrow in his place! Admittedly, I wish this was what the movie had done, with the original Harold having a burlap bag or pumpkin head, but the face that they do design for him is now based on the authentic look of a very old, sun-baked latex mask, which is certainly effective.
Film Harold does not murder, skin, and stuff people into human scarecrows as in the original tale, but that's probably for the better. It would have been going a tad far for this movie, and what he does instead is both more imaginatively bizarre and honestly much, much creepier.
"Wait a minute!" you might say if you're a fan, "that's not the Big Toe's illustration!" You're right. This is the memorable ghost woman from a completely different story. However, the two are combined here, so that this memorably horrid revenant is the one who shows up looking for her pilfered digit, stolen from her own grave to make a pot of stew. We unfortunately never get a nice, clear close-up of her face to match that of the book, but she's a menacing and gruesome antagonist regardless, and even the pot of stew itself feels like a monstrous presence. The moment it appears, anyone who remembers the story knows what's going to happen.
THE GHOST WOMAN ("THE BIG TOE")
I'm going to count this as a "monster," because parasitic spiders are not a real thing. I'm not a fan of the fact that this scene will probably agitate (or even CREATE!) a needless fear of arachnids in a chunk of the audience, but it is one of the most classic of urban legends and classic to the books, with an illustration even I find genuinely distressing. There was, however, no way they really could have recreated this one in the film, since it's the uncanny, unnatural looking face of this woman that I think leaves even more of an impression than the spiderlings. They do make an effort to come up with some all-new grotesquery, in the form of a single spider leg protruding like a hair from the middle of a massive boil. Again, even I find that pretty unpleasant.
THE SPIDERS ("THE RED SPOT")
What ensues from there isn't nearly as graphic as it could have been; to everyone I saw it with, the pale yellow of the boil was much more unpleasant than its contents, and we were all glad that it didn't end up spurting pus. That would have been infinitely worse than just a bunch of misplaced baby animals, who were done up in shiny enough CG to look a tad fake, even "hokey," which may have been a deliberate choice considering how much more realistic and visceral some of the other effects end up being.
This was the one I really looked forward to, and it did not disappoint. In the original story, the protagonist has a strange dream about a strange looking hotel room, and a pale-skinned, beady-eyed woman who appears and warns her that the room is an "evil place." Naturally, they end up encountering the same room for real, and when they see the same woman, they flee before they can even receive the warning.
THE PALE LADY ("THE DREAM")
That's where the original story ended, and obviously, the woman was not meant to be a monster of any kind, nor had any ill intentions. The illustration of her, however, has gone down as one of the creepiest in the book, and the film can't resist translating it more literally into an antagonistic, inhuman entity. This is another thing I would have had mixed feelings about if it had been done any differently, but her entire on-screen sequence is magnificently terrifying. By simply lifting the illustration directly to a practical costume, the Pale Lady becomes a nude, fleshy horror whose innocent little mouse-eyes and serene expression only elevate the panic of her inescapable pursuit in a scene that combines a haunting, uncanny fever-dream sensation with more immediate, heart-pounding suspense in a way I think is only rarely achieved...and usually still not this well.
While subtlety must be sacrificed for the Pale Lady to present actual danger, it is not a "violent" danger. I half expected a reveal that her sweet smile might conceal a mouthful of fangs, but anything so cornball is thankfully averted, and I have no doubt this is one that might stick with viewers the hardest.
"Wait a minute!" you say again, "who the heck is the Jangly Man?!"
THE JANGLY MAN ("ME TIE DOUGH-TY WALKER")
Me Tie Dough-ty Walker was the story that disturbed me the most as a child, namely the weirdness of the distant, approaching song and the dreamy abnormality of a pet dog singing back. While we don't hear the song coming closer and closer - which I definitely missed - the dog's reactions are there, and they are slightly more "realistic" but marvelously unsettling nonetheless.
In the original story, this all culminated in a bloody, severed head tumbling out of a chimney, opening its eyes and screaming as the story ends. In the movie, the head snarls the Me Tie Dough-Ty Walker line before it is further joined by a series of other body parts that link together into what is ostensibly based on the story "Aaron Kelly's Bones." However, the ghost of Aaron Kelly was a more jovial, dancing sort, whereas this being is an incredibly fast and powerful killer.
This change unfortunately makes for the least effective monster in the movie, a much more "typical" kind of scary and more in-your-face. It might have been leagues more horrific if it was still a smiling, dancing figure or even if it had the mournful, whiskered face of the original chimney head. No direspect to the amazing performance by Troy James, whose ability to contort his body has audiences constantly mistaking his characters for computer effects, but I think there was a wasted opportunity here on the part of Del Toro to create something much more jarring and unwholesome than just enough hissing, spitting ghoul.
I suppose, in the end, that this may just be the rest of the movie spoiling me. After the Pale Lady covered a more hallucinatory sort of fear, it makes sense that the next monster would be a more violent, more action-packed threat, giving each monster in the film its own trademark style of fright.
Our final monster is one that doesn't come from the books at all, and was already shown in the official trailers, so we may as well share a screenshot anyway. Sarah Bellows is the device that ties all of these various monsters together into a single story: the ghost of an abused, institutionalized young girl who had nothing to do but write, and write, and write, and used to read her work to local children who listened in through the wall of her prison. Whether she was compiling stories she already knew about or invented them herself is never clear, but the curse of her vengeful spirit is capable of bringing those stories to life, picking off those who have angered her through whatever tale they found or would have found to be the most terrifying.
Sarah Bellows hits on many typical ghost story elements: she was born with an abnormal condition, she was mistreated by her family, and she murdered other children until she was committed to an insane asylum...or so we're told. These cliche's are, of course, set up by the narrative only to be deconstructed by the end, and they're not the only tired tropes this movie subverts. If any of it sounds appealing to you so far, you're in for a pretty good time. It even ends on an optimistic note that sets up the possibility for a sequel, but would still work just as well as a single, self-contained story. I'd put this up there with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Trick R' Treat on a list of viable Halloween traditions, and I look forward to whatever impact some of its monsters end up making on our pop culture landscape. Where's my Pale Lady action figures and plushes already???
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