We’re only a few months away from the much-anticipated August 9 release of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the movie adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s wonderfully grotesque 1990s children’s anthology books famous for launching the careers of a thousand therapists. Earlier this afternoon, director André Øvredal joined co-writer and producer Guillermo del Toro at New York’s Roxy Hotel to premiere a few new clips from the film, as well as the new trailer (below), plus answer some burning audience questions.
Del Toro began the conversation by recounting his own obsession with Schwartz’s work — specifically, the books’ absolutely freakish illustrations by Stephen Gammell, which he and Øvredal were hell-bent on imitating for the film. “When I first saw the cover of Scary Stories Vol. 1, it was astounding,” said del Toro. “I found the [stories and illustrations] so chilling. They had the powerful simplicity of a story told at a campfire.”
Del Toro added that when he first discovered the books several decades ago, he was so transfixed by them that he bought nine of the “key illustrations” from the book. “I owed a lot on my mortgage and didn’t own my car,” he laughed, “but they were so powerful that I couldn’t let them go. They’re a part of my young imagination … We tried to re-create the exact drawings that Stephen did, three-dimensionally. We went to huge lengths. We did it like an animation, sculpted it, dressed it. We didn’t do a [CGI] approach. That counts for a lot.”
The film’s most significant achievement, according to del Toro, was re-creating Schwartz’s “The Dream,” a story that centers on “a pale woman so haunting and so difficult to make,” he said. “It’s a very ethereal, doughy pale woman with a beatific little smile. She’s almost cute, but she’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Del Toro went on to explain why he and Øvredal decided not to make an anthology film out of Scary Stories, but instead tied Schwartz’s stories together into a single narrative. “[Anthology] is something I love, but they’re always as bad as the worst story,” he said. Instead, he made a movie about “storytelling and friendship, how storytelling changes who and what you are,” he said. “It’s a YA movie about childhood around a time when things were changing forever, around 1968 and 1969. It’s the end of childhood in many ways — a crucial time for America … We didn’t retrofit the characters to the stories. We adapted the characters to the story.”
The film — which the two described as “Amblin-esque” and said was inspired by Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, specifically movies like Stand by Me and the miniseries The Stand — follows a group of children in the late 1960s living in small-town Mill Valley, led by a teen girl named Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti). (“Normally in these stories, it’s a bunch of boys with a sidekick that’s a girl. I wanted to flip that and make her the lead,” said del Toro.) While creeping around inside a local haunted house, Stella and her friends stumble upon a magical book that writes itself based on the reader’s specific fears. Calamity ensues — but a family-friendly sort. “We wanted to make a family adventure,” explained del Toro of the film, which has a PG-13 rating. “I want this to be a nice family horror film. Family is horror in itself, but sometimes, with milk and cookies, you can find something nice to watch.”
Del Toro said he chose Øvredal to head up the film because of the director’s dark Norwegian fantasy Trollhunter, and because Øvredal “has a worse accent than I do.” For his part, Øvredal described the project as a “fun urban horror tale balancing humor and scares,” adding that it wasn’t a “nasty horror movie,” but one targeted to a YA audience. “We didn’t wanna go too young, but we wanted to honor the fact that the books are for a younger audience,” he said. “We wanted to honor the material and the stories.”
Øvredal and del Toro then introduced a new clip from the film, based on Schwartz’s story “The Big Toe.” “The setup is there’s a corpse looking for its big toe,” deadpanned del Toro. The scene opens with a teen boy on the phone with his mom, scavenging through his fridge for something to eat. “I’m gonna eat this stew,” he says. He pauses for a beat. “I don’t know, someone made it!” he says, irritated, before he hangs up. He pulls a gigantic pot out of the fridge, dunks his spoon in, and nearly takes a bite before he’s interrupted by Stella and her pals, phoning in from a few blocks away on a walkie-talkie. “Do not eat anything!” screams Stella, explaining that she’s currently watching the haunted book write a story about this very teen boy eating a stew seasoned with Corpse Big Toe.
Naturally, the boy ignores her, and slurps up the gangrenous toe in full. Realizing what’s in his mouth, he pulls it out in slow motion, horrified, and begins to vomit. Suddenly, he hears a disembodied voice: “Where’s my toe?!” He races to his bedroom, pursued by a tottering skeletal figure that’s missing, you guessed it, a single big toe. Frantic, the boy hides under his bed — but the corpse has gotten there first, yanking him toe-first into some sort of phantasmagorical vortex inside the wall.
At the end of the clip, del Toro laughed heartily. The teen boy from the clip stood up a few rows behind del Toro and waved at the audience. “He’s alive and well!” said del Toro.
The second clip, which features more heavily in the new trailer, is based on Schwartz’s “The Red Spot.” A young girl is sitting at a mirror, putting on stage makeup, about to head onstage for a school play, when she notices a swollen, throbbing pimple on the side of her cheek. “Honey, you better do something about that,” says her friend disapprovingly. The girl races to the bathroom; by the time she gets there, the spot has grown exponentially. She pokes and prods at it, whimpering. It grows redder and hotter until, suddenly, a thin spider’s leg extends out of it. The girl begins screaming and clawing at her face. Stella and her merry band of ghost hunters race into the bathroom just as thousands of spiders explode out of the girl’s face, crawling all over her body as she throws herself onto the floor, sobbing.
“She may or may not have gone to the haunted house and gotten a spider bite,” giggled del Toro as the clip concluded.
Several particularly thrilled audience members asked del Toro and Øvredal if they’d consider making sequels to the film, considering the wealth of Alvin Schwartz stories to draw from (del Toro thinks there’s more than 100). Both men said they’d love to, but that it depended on the movie’s reception. Another audience member asked del Toro and Øvredal how they knew where the line was for horror targeted at kids — and admitted he’d never let his own kid see something so frightening. “It’s important to have heart,” said del Toro. “I haven’t read a single studio note, ever. If you have the right heart, humanity is there before the scare and gore.”
Del Toro paused for a moment before asking if he could add on to his previous comment. “The real tragedy of horror is not to have your parents talk to you about it,” he said. “When you’re a kid, you’re curious about two things: sex and death. The rest you can figure out in a manual. A lot of parents shy away from those things. But we live in the real world. When we live in a great world, we can avoid these things. But we need to know the darkness to know the light. It’s something to bond over. I wish my father and mother watched [horror] with me. The world is constantly telling you about everything great, as a kid — in yogurt and shampoo commercials, in movies where nobody looks like you. Horror movies tell you: ‘There is a dark side, don’t worry.’ I think that’s really important.”