Guillermo del Toro Talks Bringing Monsters to Life for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

By Cheryl Eddy on at

If you read Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a kid, no doubt you’re still haunted by Stephen Gammell’s chilling illustrations. When Guillermo del Toro decided to produce a film version, with brother-in-horror André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) directing, he knew that bringing Gammell’s iconic artwork to life would be a crucial part of the process.

Being del Toro, he, of course, knew exactly who he wanted to bring in to give life to Scary Stories’ nightmarish creatures. At San Diego Comic-Con, del Toro and Øvredal took the stage with a trio of special effects masters that worked on their upcoming film: Mike Elizalde (an Oscar nominee for his work on del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army), Norman Cabrera (The Walking Dead), and Mike Hill (The Shape of Water). The movie isn’t a straightforward adaptation – instead, it’s about a group of teens who break into a haunted house and discover a book filled with stories that suddenly come alive.

“When we started talking about this about five years ago, I had to think about it. Of course, I love the books, but I didn’t want to do an anthology film, because anthology films are always as bad as the worst story in them,” del Toro told the audience. “They’re never as good as the best story. I thought, that’s not a format I want. And then I remembered in Pan’s Labyrinth, I created a book that was called The Book of Crossroads, that when you opened it, it reads you the future, and writes itself for you and only for you. I thought, that could be great – if I have a book that reads you, rather than you reading the book, and it writes the thing that you’re most afraid of...and then it happens. I thought that was good, and then the theme became the stories we tell about each other. I think that’s as good for 1968-69, which is when the movie is set, or [today’s] social media, which is the way we shape each other through our conversations and our stories. It seemed very prudent right now.”

The trailers thus far have offered some tantalising glimpses of the those “things you’re most afraid of,” many of which come in the form of monsters, including ultimate creepy scarecrow Harold, the Big Toe, the Pale Lady, and a creature created just for the film, Jangly Man. In fact, here’s a new trailer they just released today:

As (legitimately hair-raising) images of Harold tracing his leap from page to screen were shown to the crowd, creature effects supervisor Elizalde and special makeup effects artist Cabrera explained that staying true to Gammell’s drawings was an important goal for his department.

“We’re massive fans of the books, and we were so inspired by the artwork. One of the first things was, it’s gotta stay true to the real art, so we literally took our sculpt and the artwork, and in Photoshop kind of blended two photos together. We were literally overlaying them so that the lines would match up,” Cabrera said. “You know, it’s always good when you’re doing a monster design to explore every idea. It was important for us to copy the Gammell art, but you kind of want to explore a little bit too. If you have a little bit of time for R&D, that’s really good, because you might stumble upon something. Like, that works, that doesn’t work, that sort of thing. In this case, we all just reverted back to the original art.”

Elizalde added, “One of the things that’s really special about this project for all of us was that sometimes, you go down the road of creating something that you’ve been handed designs [for] that come from an artist that you’ve never met before. Sometimes we generate the designs ourselves. But in this case, we were creating designs from something that scared us as kids. It was something that was really special and important for us to try and get right. We did try a range of looks for Harold originally, but André was really clear. He said, ‘I don’t want this to look like a person. It needs to look like a terrifying mask that’s been rotting in the sun.’ So that’s how the final look was arrived at.”

Special makeup effects artist and sculptor Hill, who worked on the squishy horror that is the Pale Lady, also helped craft the new character, Jangly Man. “This character wasn’t officially in the books, but he was an amalgamation of several characters,” Hill said. “He was actually played by a guy named Troy James,” he said, pausing to let the audience shriek at the alarming footage being shown onscreen. “As you can see, he’s a contortionist. We knew that Troy was so good at walking [bent over] backwards, very eerily, so we decided that we’re gonna do an upside-down head, which is a right-way-up head if he’s walking backwards. So that really was very supernatural, and added a supernatural countenance to it.”

Added del Toro, “All the creatures, the Pale Lady, Harold, all of them, 90 percent of everything is physical. And then we add the 10 percent digital that tweaks it very, very little but makes you believe it’s alive. It’s extremely successful to let the physical effects lead, and digital follows.”

Elizalde concurred. “In order to create a really convincing illusion, you use all of the tools at your disposal. Digital is such a viable tool for us, just for that purpose, to just push it into that next realm. Where your subconscious is telling you, ‘I know what I’m looking at is real, but there’s really something very wrong with it.’ There’s something so different, but subtle stuff. That’s really what sells the illusion of these great characters.”