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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

also known as “Scary Stories,” “Chuyen Kinh di Luc Nua dem,” “Histoires effrayantes à raconter dans le noir,” “Histórias Assustadoras Para Contar no Escuro,” See more »
MPAA Rating: PG-13-Rating (MPAA) for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.

Reviewed by: Alexander Malsan

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Horror Mystery Thriller Adaptation
1 hr. 51 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
August 9, 2019 (wide—3,135 theaters)
DVD: November 5, 2019
Copyright, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Lionsgate

FEAR, Anxiety and Worry—What does the Bible say? Answer

RACISM—What are the consequences of racial prejudice and false beliefs about the origin of races? Answer

Racism, Racial Issues and Christianity
Get biblical answers to racial hot-topics. Where did the races come from? How did skin color come about? Why is it important to have a biblical foundation for such issues?

Drunk driving / intoxication / driving under the influence

What is the Occult? Answer

THE OCCULT—What does the Bible say about it? Answer

HALLOWEEN—Should Christians participate in the this holiday? Answer

What’s wrong with Halloween? Answer

Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate Copyright, Lionsgate
Featuring: Zoe Margaret CollettiStella Nicholls
Michael GarzaRamón Morales
Gabriel RushAuggie Hilderbrandt
Dean NorrisRoy Nicholls
Gil BellowsChief Turner
Lorraine Toussaint … Lou Lou
See all »
Director: André Øvredal
Producer: CBS Films
Guillermo del Toro
See all »
Distributor: Distributor: Lionsgate Films. Trademark logo.

The year is 1968 in the town of Portsmouth. It’s Halloween night and all Stella and her friends, Charlie (“Chuck”) and August (“Auggie”) want to do is dress up and trick-or-treat. After a, uh, somewhat successful attempt to ambush the local bully, Tom, who tries to steal Stella and her friend’s candy (he ends up stealing a fake smelly bag, and they throw eggs at his car and a flaming bag of feces to top it off), Stella and her friends are forced to run for their lives, where they hide in a stranger’s car at a local drive-in. Stella introduces herself and her friends and suggests Ramon (the stranger) join her and her friends for one final trip for the evening. Ramon agrees to join them.

Stella, her friends and their new friend, Ramon, come upon the house of Sara Bellows. Legend has it Sara Bellows was a troubled young girl, locked away by her family in a basement due to her supposed “horrid” appearance. However, Sara escaped and wreaked havoc on some of the citizens, killing a few of them, being declared insane, and, supposedly, Sara ended up hanging herself with her own hair in the basement when she was eventually captured. But, that’s not all, one of the friends points out. Sara had a book where she wrote scary stories and read them through her basement walls to townspeople on the other side who would come and listen (you know, before she went all “crazy” and killed a bunch of people).

While perusing Sara Bellows’ home, the intrepid explorers (or I should say trespassers, as they had to break a lock to get in) find Sara Bellows’ room in the basement. Stella comes across Sara’s legendary book with all the stories contained in and utters the forbidden phrase: “Sara Bellows, tell me a story” (why Stella chose to utter these exact words is never really explained, but I digress).

Little does Stella knows the horror she just unleashed upon her and the people of Portsmouth.

It is not in my nature to usually start off a review with a disclaimer, but I feel that I must this time. I have not read the original Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. As such, I can make draw no comparison between the books and the movie.

Having gotten this out of the way, what I can tell you, and what other critics have stated, has held true with “Scary Stories,” and that is that the film is good old-fashioned traditional horror. The cinematic stylings of this particular film are simplistic, old-school, yet effective in their approach. The story utilizes elements such as the eerie-ness that comes from lurking around a haunted house, listening to the wind blow through the trees on a cold October evening when no one else is around, or providing moments of dead silence before Sara Bellows (or another entity entirely) chimes in to warn you of the impending danger.

All of these techniques may seem outdated to horror film fanatics (I, myself, being a fanatic), but there is nothing wrong with tradition. We have become so dependent on CGI, visual effects, gore and the like, that to look back at films like “Friday the 13th” (the original) bores us. Granted there is some CGI and special effects in “Scary Stories…” but there is a balance with more traditional aspects of horror film making, and I appreciate that.

One flaw I found with this film is the performances of some of the leads. Now, granted, I understand that these are up and coming adolescent actors/actresses, but in many cases I felt that their performances were lacking emotion at times (or that, in some instances they were making the best of the hand they were dealt). However, there were two actors I was impressed with. The first was from Zoe Colletti who played the lead, Stella. She gave her character such passion, such a drive and such a heart for others that I was rooting for her throughout the film. The second person, I thought gave a relatively strong performance was Austin Zajur who played Charles (“Chuck”) who provided strength but also just the right amount of comic relief when needed.

I also believe some of the character development in this film needed more work, as many of the characters that end up “disappearing” I didn’t really care about, because I didn’t know enough about them.

Objectionable Material

Violence: Very Heavy to Extreme. We hear audio of a young woman being electrocuted and tortured. Stella and her friends “egg” a car and then throw a flaming bag of feces through the back windshield, causing the car to crash through a fence. A girl (after being called trash) is kicked down some basement stairs. A character is skewered with a pitchfork. A character eats a stew with a human toe in it. A character, while hiding under the bed, is dragged off by a monster. We watch a bug crawl out of a young teenage girl’s pimple, followed by multiple bugs crawling out of the pimple covering her body. A character is absorbed by a monster. We see a terrifying gollum-like creature (as in The Lord of the Rings) that snaps a character’s neck. We watch as the Jangly Man attacks a fleeing character. A monster is impaled to a truck after crashing. A character is hurt falling downstairs. A young female slave child is physically punished off screen; we hear her pleading not to be punished but don’t hear any beatings. A head drops to the floor and rolls. A monster tries to break through car windows to get at a character. A character is dragged by her hair.

Profanity: “J*sus” (3 or more), “G*d” (9), “G*d-d*mn” (4), “d**n” (3), “H*ll” (4)

Vulgarity: “w*tback” (2x), “a**hole” (1), “sh*t” (12+), “perv” (1), “douchebags,” “punch you in the throat,” “turd” (2), “my banana” and “stiffy” (referring to male genitalia), “butt pimple” (1), “breast milk,” and discussions about Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Sex/Nudity: There is a conversation between Chuck and August about August being aroused by Chuck’s sister, Ruth. A pen that Chuck carries pictures a woman wearing revealing lingerie. Stella has Ramon stay over at her house after Ramon’s tires are slashed; Ramon thinks they are going to be affectionate.

Occult: Moderately Heavy. The dark shadowy spirit of Sara Bellows slowly travels to the characters, causing them to vanish. There are discussions of the use of black magic and how to remove its power. And there is consultation with the dead (a ghost).

“Let no one be found among you who… consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD…” —Deuteronomy 18:10-12 NIV

Other: In the city, we see Richard Nixon posters defaced with swastikas. A song called “The Season of the Witch” contains lyrics regarding Halloween and witchcraft. Someone walks in on another person in the bathroom. There are multiple racial undertones in this film. Stella and her friends are seen breaking into building and restricted areas of buildings (such as a hospital). A character is seen drunk.

Spiritual Content

The film starts and ends with our heroine, Stella, stating the following short phrase: “Stories can hurt and stories can heal.” It isn’t until we dive into the story of Stella and her friends and their exploration of Sara Bellows that we understand by what she meant when she meant. The message I take away from all this is that our words can be powerful—powerful enough to build, but also powerful enough to destroy. Our words can create relationships with other people but can also extinguish them in another situation. A single rumor, no doubt, can ruin one’s reputation, whether based or unbased, or build their reputation.

I am reminded by what the apostle James stated about the most evil part of our body, the tongue:

“But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” —James 3:8

Jesus cautioned us to be careful of our words:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” —Matthew 12:36-37

But the Bible does state how we should speak to one another and to the rest of those who do not know God:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” —Colossians 3:16

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” —Ephesians 4: 25, 29

Final Thoughts

“Scary Stories” may be of interest to those who are looking for a “back-to-basics” horror film. However, the violence is quite extensive and sometimes just downright disturbing, and for whatever reason, does not sit right with me. Cinematically, it hits most of the nails on the head. But spiritually and morally, it is lacking in many, many areas. Please LEAVE the children at home. It is not the most OFFENSIVE horror film on the market but certainly not the cleanest. Discernment is strongly advised.

“I will not look with approval on anything that is vile.
I hate what faithless people do;
I will have no part in it.” —Psalm 101:3 NIV

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” —Philippians 4:8 ESV

Learn about DISCERNMENT—wisdom in making personal entertainment decisions

  • Violence: Very Heavy
  • Profane language: Very Heavy
  • Vulgar/Crude language: Moderate
  • Occult: Moderately Heavy
  • Sex: Mild
  • Nudity: None

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

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Secular Movie Critics
…Political overtones are nothing new to the genre, but what Scary Stories does so well is in psychologically connecting all these elements—the election, the war, and the racism—with the sense that horror and murder are self-generating phenomena in a world without justice. This also connects the film to our present-day reality…
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture (New York Magazine)
… isn’t worth the nearly two hours it eats up… [1/4]
Roger Moore, Movie Nation
…a handsome, and deliciously horrible, horror movie…
Clark Collis, Entertainment Weekly
…Terrifyingly mediocre… lackluster adaptation… All of these beasties are “scary.” Though they'd be much more so if they felt less like franchisable IP and more like fervent expressions of the ills of the eras on which the film aims to comment.
Keith Uhlich, The Hollywood Reporter
…Jump scares are the film’s most-used horror device, but it does feel like Øvredal and del Toro are pushing the envelope of the film’s PG-13 rating with how creepy some of the stories get. …
Nick Vadala, Philadelphia Inquirer
…this PG-13-rated film is…too scary for the tweens that might be drawn to the challenge and not jarring enough for older horror buffs accustomed to far worse…
Brian Lowry, CNN
…packs a visually disturbing—and memorable—wallop but is ultimately undone by some less than remarkable character development and an unnecessary, if currently contemporaneous, pseudo-political undertones… [2½/5]
Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle