Scary Stories Dives Deep into Alvin Schwartz & Stephen Gammell’s Legendary Novels (Review)

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Scary Stories is an upcoming documentary about the infamous cult classic ‘kids’ book series Scary Stories To Tell in The Dark from Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell. The film hits select theaters April 26 via Wild Eye Releasing and VOD May 7th with a DVD release July 16th. Here is my review:

A documentary about children’s horror classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It includes the author’s family, scholars, folklorists, artists, and children’s book authors such as R.L. Stine, Q.L. Pearce, and more.

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Soon to be a feature-length film from producer Guillermo del Toro, Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark is that one book that everyone discovers in their school library, thinking they just found something that shouldn’t be there… a mistake, some sort of disturbing and unsettling spooky jackpot. Those three novels, which collect all kinds of bizarre, hilarious and frightening folklore legends, all retold by author Alvin Schwartz and vividly illustrated in nightmarish fashion by Stephen Gammell — are some of the most controversial and iconic books ever made.

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This documentary, Scary Stories, from Cody Meirick explores all the controversy of when the books were targeted by people who were certain that they were not age appropriate for Kindergarten children, as well as the everlasting legacy that the late Schwartz and Gammell unknowingly instilled upon children growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s. It’s a fascinating look into the culture of books in general and how much of an effect specifically these little tales of terror had then and still do today.

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The movie dives deep with Alvin Schwartz’ son, who seems to be the one carrying his father’s legacy but begrudgingly so? I couldn’t get a read on this guy and we spend a lot of time with him as he mentions how he had an indifferent relationship with his father. In one story, he mentions how he made fun of his father when he was younger and asked him why he only wrote these “little” collections about folklore as opposed to the “next great epic”. Later on when Alvin Schwartz was dying from cancer, his son didn’t take the chance to say he loved him before the end and that was also super depressing. Meirick’s documentary does an incredible job peeling back the layers of Schwartz’ career, family and shines a light on his legacy in ways I didn’t anticipate.

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Scary Stories spends a lot of time with the fans and those influenced by the books, both negatively and positively. You’ll see people inspired by Gammell’s incredible illustrations to the point where they make 3D sculptures of his drawings or even singing those gruesome songs that we all know and love – “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out!” Now, even though the documentary includes fellow horror novel royalty like R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), be prepared to spend A LOT of time with the normal people. As much fun as it was seeing these nobodies talk about their love of this novel franchise, at times it did feel like I was sitting in on some early 90’s schoolboard meetings. Also there’s a guy with a tiny cowboy hat who looks like he lives on his mom’s llama farm to pay off his school loans. In other words I did find myself NOT taking every interviewee’s opinion all that seriously because I might be shallow – or they just might be boring. Not sure.

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It’s an interesting and eclectic group of people that Meirick assembled for Scary Stories, but I do feel that some viewers may lose interest with some of them depending how intrigued they are by the Scary Stories novels. I honestly had NO CLUE how deep and layered these folklore stories truly were until watching the film either… The story about the tourists finding a dog in Mexico that turns out to be a diseased rat? Apparently that tale has incredibly strong ties to racism, immigration and fear of outsiders. What? Holy shit – some of these historians were reaching to such great lengths and dissecting these old stories, to the level where you may lose interest in their examinations depending on how strong your connection is to the books.

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In terms of production quality, Scary Stories looks good for an indie flick and the animated sequences and original illustrations were fantastic homages to Gammell’s iconic imagery. For most of us – those disturbing pictures are forever burned into our brains and most horror films of today can’t hold a candle to the horror of seeing those twisted designs for the first time.

If anything, the most appealing aspect of Scary Stories is seeing just how important those weird little books were and still are to a lot of people. It’s fun reminiscing about our past, but Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark is just one of those cult classics that many of us inadvertently applied as the foundation to horror fandom. If you’re looking to watch the full length film later this year, start by purchasing the books (WITH GAMMELL’S ART – BE SURE THEY HAVE HIS ART) and then check this documentary out immediately afterwards. Diving into Scary Stories was like opening up parts of my brain I forgot had existed and that’s something truly special.

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