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Film / Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

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"Sarah Bellows... tell me a story..."

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a 2019 horror film directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Troll Hunter) and written by Dan & Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie), based on the series of children's books by Alvin Schwartz & Stephen Gammell of the same name. The film was co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, who also conceived the story.

On Halloween 1968, in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, a group of teenagers — Stella, Chuck, Auggie, and Ramon — wind up in an infamous mansion belonging to the Bellows family, long marked by notoriety due to events surrounding their daughter Sarah, and uncover a book of horror stories written by her. Soon after, the town is stricken by a series of gruesome, nightmarish events that seem to be connected to the book, the teenagers take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and put a stop to the terror.

The film stars Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Lorraine Toussaint, Karen Glave, Javier Botet, Gil Bellows and Dean Norris.

In 2020, it was officially announced that a sequel is in development. While Del Toro, the original film's writers, and most of the cast (such as Colletti, Garza, Ganzhorn, and Norris) have been confirmed to be returning, it is unclear if Øvredal will direct.

Teasers: "Big Toe", "Red Spot", "Pale Lady", "Jangly Man".

Official Trailers: March 28, 3rd June

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark contains examples of:

  • The '60s: The movie is set in 1968, against the backdrop of Richard Nixon's presidential bid.
  • Adaptational Villainy: The Pale Lady from "The Dream". In the original story, she warns the protagonist that the apartment she's staying in is evil. In the film, she stalks Chuck through the hospital and eventually pulls him inside her body...even after having allegedly warned him that the place is evil in his dreams.
  • Adapted Out: Several elements from the original stories were removed to condense them into one narrative.
    • In the "Harold" story, he was antagonized by two farmers, Thomas/Tommy and Alfred. Tommy is the only one here.
    • The setting of "The Dream" was a mysterious inn run by a shady, possibly murderous landlord the Pale Lady is cryptically warning of. The film changes this to a hospital and has the Pale Lady herself as the villain.
  • Albinos Are Freaks: Sarah Bellows was persecuted by her own family and locked away from the world because she was born albino. In life, she was a hero who tried to save the town from her family, as their mill operations were poisoning the water supply. Sarah's family successfully convinced the townspeople that Sarah was a witch who was responsible for the deaths of several children, making them see her as evil and burning her at the stake. As a spirit, Sarah embraces everything her family thought her to be, and terrorizes the town in the present.
  • And I Must Scream: Except for Chief Turner, whose neck was snapped by the Jangly Man when he got in his way, the fate of nearly every victim of Sarah's curse is left ambiguous. Stella thinks they are all still alive and can be brought back.
    • Tommy Milner was stabbed by his scarecrow Harold and was slowly turning into a scarecrow. The next day, the only trace of him is his jock-coat over Harold (which may or may not be a case of Clone by Conversion).
    • Auggie is dragged into the darkness from under his bed by Big Toe, leaving nothing but scratch marks on the floor.
    • Chuck is cornered by the Pale Lady, who takes him into her arms and absorbs him before vanishing, leaving nothing but his pen behind.
  • Ankle Drag: Big Toe sneaks underneath Auggie's bed and drags him into what appears to be a pocket dimension in the wall, ostensibly killing him.
  • Arc Words: "Stories heal, stories hurt."
  • Artistic Licence – Biology: Ruth has spider eggs laid under her skin even though no species of spider lays eggs in humans. This is justified though since the parasitic spiders are supernatural monsters summoned by a ghost, not real ones.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Shortly after intentionally locking his own date and four teenagers in the basement of an abandoned house, Tommy gets impaled by a pitchfork and turned into a scarecrow by Harold.
    • Most of Sarah's evil family are killed by monsters Sarah summoned.
    • The racist, Jerkass Dirty Cop Chief Turner gets his neck snapped by the Jangly Man.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Chief Turner successfully forces Ramon to join the draft.
  • Batter Up!: Tommy routinely smacks Harold the scarecrow with a baseball bat.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted. Ruth survives but her experience with the spiders leaves her with a massive scar on her cheek.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: It was the various inhumane medicinal practices her brother inflicted on her and the imprisonment by her family that eventually led to Sarah becoming a Vengeful Ghost, taking out her rage on anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in her curse.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Ruth and Chuck fight like siblings tend to do, but when Tommy locks Chuck in the basement of the Bellows' house, Ruth immediately tells him to let him go. She seems nervous to stand up to Tommy but insists that she has to help Chuck because he's her little brother. When Tommy doesn't listen to her she opens the door herself, which results in Tommy throwing her down to the basement and locking her in too. The older sibling instinct returns at the end of the film, as Ruth teams up with Stella to find a way to bring Chuck and Auggie back from the dead.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Stella manages to save herself and Ramón by promising to tell the world about how Sarah Bellows was not the monster that the stories about her painted her as, but rather a victim of her own family, with Sarah then stopping the stories from coming true. However, Ramón is drafted to Vietnam, but Stella promises to write him letters every day, Chief Turner is dead, and Auggie, Chuck, and presumably Tommy are still missing. The final scene has Stella, her father, and Ruth, who has since recovered from her attack, setting out to find a way to save them from their stories, with Stella still having Sarah’s book.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Subverted. Stella is still able to make out the world around her reasonably well after she loses her glasses in the past.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Scenes like Tommy being stabbed or Ruthie's spot bursting are conspicuously lacking in blood.
  • Body Horror:
    • Ruth is bitten by a spider inside the Bellows house, and swarms of baby spiders come out of the resulting boil.
    • After Tommy is stabbed by Harold the scarecrow, he is slowly, painfully transformed into a scarecrow himself. We see straw coming out of his mouth, ears, and even his stab wounds.
  • Bowdlerise: Harold turns Tommy into a scarecrow rather than skinning him alive and leaving it out to dry. Justified as a one-to-one adaptation would almost certainly have earned the film an R rating.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: Sarah's book always returns to Stella and can't be destroyed.
  • Composite Character:
    • The Big Toe monster is visually based on the illustration for "The Haunted House." As such, her eyes are present in the stew along with her toe in this version.
    • The Jangly Man is stated as being from "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!" but has the rest of his body parts fall down the chimney and form together like the corpse from "What Do You Come For?" His name also appears to be inspired by "What Do You Come For?" which describes the corpse as "a great, gangling man."
  • Daddy's Girl: Stella is very close to her father and tries to take care of him as best she can. When Ramon tells her she should move to the city to become a writer, Stella refuses because it would mean leaving her dad alone. Later in the movie, after she's arrested, she uses her one phone call to tell him how much she loves him and that if she goes missing it's because something evil got her and not because she abandoned him. It's strongly implied that Stella's strong sense of responsibility towards her father stems from the fact that her mother abandoned them.
  • Darker and Edgier: The illustrations for the source material were scary as is, but get taken to a whole new level on film.
  • Deadly Book: Sarah Bellows' book of scary stories automatically fills in the pages, which then becomes true in reality.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Auggie and Chuck spend the first half of the movie being this.
  • Direct Line to the Author: An interesting case. The stories Stella writes in her spare time are very similar in tone to those which are in Sarah's own book, which in turn form the basis of the real-life books the film is based on; Ramon blatantly outlines the ending of "Sam's New Pet" as one of Stella's creations. It can be inferred that Stella compiled both Sarah's and her own stories together to sell.
  • Dirty Cop: Police Chief Turner, who clearly has a very racist attitude toward Ramon.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Having a bag of flaming poop thrown at you while you're driving and then having your car egged is indeed pretty bad. However, Tommy responds by locking up Stella and her friends (including his own date when she protested what he was doing) in the hidden basement of an abandoned house, where they very well could have died before someone could find them (if ever). Tommy also destroyed Ramon's car, which is especially egregious considering that Ramon wasn't even there when the prank was pulled and is only guilty of harboring Stella and her friends in his car. It's also worth noting that Stella and the others only pranked Tommy after years of him stealing their Halloween candy and bullying them.
  • Domestic Abuser: Tommy is heavily implied to abuse Ruth.
  • Draft Dodging: Ramon is actively avoiding being sent to Vietnam, considering it a death trap with no hope of victory. He finally goes through with it at the end of the movie.
  • Eaten Alive: In a way. Chuck is forcibly pulled into the Pale Lady's body, never to be seen again.
  • Exact Words: "Do you want to see a haunted house?" "All right, we saw it, can we go now?"
  • Forced Transformation: Tommy is forcibly turned into a scarecrow after being stabbed by Harold.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Ramon mentions that his brother came back from the Vietnam War in pieces. His designated monster is the Jangly Man, a rotting corpse formed from numerous severed limbs.
    • Chuck brings up his reoccurring nightmares about a pale woman in a red room. This is the monster that gets him.
    • When Auggie says that Chuck 'didn't get enough air in the womb', Chuck gets absorbed into the pale woman's stomach.
    • Auggie is constantly berating Chuck for eating junk food, at one point saying "Do you know how many body parts are in that?" Guess what he ends up finding in his stew later?
    • When Ruth is thrown into the basement, she lands on a spider web and freaks out at the possibility of spiders crawling on her. Her story involves her getting bit by a spider, which causes a huge boil to form on her face that erupts with countless baby spiders.
  • Genre Savvy: Stella seems to be this, given that she writes and reads a lot of scary stories. As soon as Sarah's book starts to show its malevolence, Stella returns it to the Bellows' house and apologizes for taking it. Unfortunately, it shows right back up in her room. Stella later tries to burn it, but it's impervious to fire.
  • Greatest Hits Album: In a non-musical way, the film is something of a "best hits" of the Scary Stories books, with the characters each getting subjected to some of the most famous stories. Specifically, "Harold", "The Big Toe", "The Red Spot", "The Dream", "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!" and "The Haunted House" are represented visually; lesser stories are briefly glimpsed in Sarah and Stella's works, such as "Sam's New Pet" and "The Wendigo". Additionally, the melody of "The Hearse Song" is used various times during the film.
  • Hate Sink:
    • Tommy Milner is the Domestic Abuser of Ruth Steinberg. He tries to get revenge on Stella, Chuck, and Auggie over a prank and locks them and his own girlfriend in a secret room at the Bellows estate. He calls Ramon a "wetback" before vandalizing his car and abusing the scarecrow Harold whom he often vents his rage out on.
    • The elite Bellows family were the owners of several paper mills in the town. Amassing their wealth over the deaths of the town's children when mercury seeped into the water supply, they make the abused Sarah their scapegoat with her brother Ephraim gaslighting her into believing that she was responsible and torturing her whenever she didn't comply.
  • Heel Realization: The realization is visible on Sarah's face when Stella calls her out on cursing innocent people, she herself having become the victimizer after what her family had done to her.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Every monster except the parasitic spiders and Sarah herself is one of these.
  • In Name Only: The final story of the film, "The Haunted House," has nothing to do with the story it's adapting beyond involving a house that is haunted. The story's original illustration, however, is used as the design for the corpse in "The Big Toe."
  • Insistent Terminology: Auggie isn't a clown, he's Pierrot.
  • Jerk Jock: Tommy is definitely a 1960s-era bully, complete with a penchant for racial slurs and a habit of giving out death threats to the protagonists.
  • Kick The Son Of A Bitch: While the book targets sympathetic characters for victims as well, Tommy and Chief Turner are both racist and antagonistic to the teenagers, and Tommy is particularly loathsome. Tommy ends up stabbed in the chest with a pitchfork before he is transformed by Harold and Chief Turner being the only victim who is straight-up murdered, via Neck Snap. And while we never see their deaths, we see by the story written by Sarah that her father and brother ended up dying via the Wendigo.
  • Kill It with Fire: The kids try to burn the book after Auggie is taken so as to lift the curse, but the book is impervious to fire.
  • Killed Off for Real: Auggie, Chuck, Tommy, and Chief Turner are all still dead by the end of the film. However, the film ends with Stella, her dad, and Ruth teaming up to find a way to bring Chuck and Auggie back.
  • Madness Mantra: After the Red Spot incident, Ruth is left sobbing "get them off" over and over again, even after the spiders have been shooed away from her.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: All four of the characters who get killed onscreen are male, with Sarah Bellows having died offscreen years ago and her female victims only referenced as names in the book. Ruth survives with a scarred face and Stella survives with a minor injury, with Ramon as the only male targeted by the book to survive - but even then, of course, being forcibly drafted to the military during wartime because of his gender.
  • Missing Mom: Stella's mom left her family at some point in the past. Stella blames herself for driving her mom away, but her dad tells her it's not her fault and that her mom most likely just felt trapped in their small town.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The creature in "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!" is given the epithet of the Jangly Man.
  • Neck Snap: Chief Turner is killed this way by the Jangly Man.
  • Never Found the Body: This is a recurring theme of the victims of the Book of Scary Stories.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: The Jangly Man seems to be impossible to kill through normal means. First Chief Turner unloads an entire gun clip into its head, and it just smiles. Ramon later pins it between a police car and a truck, but it's unharmed by the impact and simply detaches its body parts so it can get free.
    • The book of stories itself. Tearing out the pages does nothing to stop the stories, and attempting to destroy the book outright by burning it is even less effective.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Stella enjoys writing scary stories; Ramon playfully ribs her that she's not quite right in the head.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Stella reveals the truth about Sarah Bellows to the world. While people praise her writing, only a few people believe her — everyone else assumes she made the whole thing up. The real story is out there, but Sarah is still remembered as a villain by the world. Given that this is what the public record has been saying for a hundred years, this isn't too surprising.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Tommy repeatedly calls the Hispanic Ramon a "wetback."
  • Police Are Useless: Ramon refuses to take the story to the police on account of how unbelievable it is, and he's proven correct when he and Stella are taken into custody later. In addition, he knows that the police will see him only as a suspect and not as a victim. Chief Turner tries to shoot the Jangly Man, but it proves immune to bullets and he is swiftly killed.
  • Red Filter of Doom: And HOW. The color palette goes almost solid red in the hallways of the hospital during the scene with The Pale Lady targeting Chuck.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Stella delivers one to Sarah Bellows at the end of the film. Stella at first sympathizes with her and tells her that what her family did to her was inexcusable, but that Sarah has become no better than them given that she murders innocent people with her stories. This actually seems to get through to Sarah, as she seems regretful and undoes the effects of her stories after Stella promises to write a true account of what happened to her.
  • Rustproof Blood: Even after decades, the blood that is used to write the stories in Sarah Bellows' book remains bright red.
  • Russian Reversal: You don’t read the book. The book reads you.
  • The Scapegoat: When Sarah grew a conscience and tried revealing the truth behind the various poisonings caused by the mercury runoff from her family's factory, the rest of the family try to pin the deaths on her maliciously poisoning them, her own brother subjecting her to various inhumane psychological practices to get her to "confess." Even further, they spread rumors about her learning black magic from their servants, making them accomplices in her "crime."
  • Scary Scarecrows: The trope image himself is reimagined for the big screen. Tommy may or may not have taken his place.
  • Ship Tease:
    • Auggie has a crush on Ruth and she seems to slightly reciprocate. Unfortunately, Auggie ends up being taken by the Big Toe ghost before this interaction can be explored further.
    • Ramon and Stella are clearly attracted to each other and form a close bond throughout the movie. Despite some hints, however, they never do more than hug, and Ramon is drafted into the Vietnam War before their relationship can develop more. Stella promises to write him as much as she can, however.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the original "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!", the dog dies of fright after the bloody head lands next to it. In this film, it runs away before they can meet.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: The Jangly Man will not give up its pursuit of Ramon, even after being hit by a car.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: Stella and Ramon find a wax cylinder containing a conversation between Sarah and her doctor, where she pleads with him to listen to her, but he will have none of it and just shocks her. Finally beaten into submission, she says that she will "tell you what you want to hear". She's actually speaking to Stella and Ramon at this point, and she begins telling the story "The Dream", which is about Chuck.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: In life, Sarah Bellows tried to be a good person and warn the town about how her family's activities were poisoning the water supply. However, her family managed to convince the town that Sarah herself was responsible for the deaths of the town's children through witchcraft and black magic. She was scorned and hated despite being innocent, and it's implied that her being an albino (the same reason why her family was so cruel to her and locked her away from the world) is part of what made the townspeople turn against her. As a ghost, Sarah has given up trying to be good and just wants to vent her rage against the world.
  • Time Travel: Sarah's story for Stella, "The Haunted House", sends her back in time to the Bellows family.
  • Torso with a View: Harold's torso has a large hole in it in the movie. It doesn't seem to hinder him from getting around, though.
  • Tragic Villain: Sarah Bellows was locked in the basement of her home by her own family and treated like she didn't exist for her entire life, all because she was born albino. When she discovered pollution from her family's paper mill was poisoning the water supply and killing people, she tried to escape and warn everybody but was caught. Her family had her institutionalized where the attending doctor, her own brother, subjected her to electroshock therapy and isolation therapy in an attempt to get her to assume blame for the deaths of the town's children. She died alone and miserable. However, while Sarah's life was undoubtedly tragic, Stella points out to her that she's no better than her family for hurting innocent people with her stories and letting her rage consume her.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Chief Turner has this reaction upon seeing the Jangly Man.
  • Wendigo: Never seen, but a wendigo is the topic of one of Sarah's past stories. It apparently killed Sarah's father.
  • Would Hurt a Child: It is implied that the Bellows family blinded Claire Baptiste when she was a child because she helped Sarah hide from them while they were hunting her.

Alternative Title(s): Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark