(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: A terrifying physical performance unleashed nightmare fuel in this introductory scene to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s most memorable monster.)
Among the countless new horror titles releasing this month, Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse kicked off the first of two double features with Black Box, a tech-based thriller. In Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.’s debut, a man seeks to restore his memory through an experimental treatment that leaves him questioning his identity. During these treatments, he’s haunted by a nightmarish figure credited as “Backwards Man,” a presence rendered downright terrifying for the way he contorts in seemingly inhuman ways. The character’s unique physicality belongs to “Twisty” Troy James, an actor who’s quickly building a reputation for his bendy horror performances.
Last year, James unnerved on the big screen as the Jangly Man, an amalgam monster from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark short stories “Aaron Kelly’s Bones,” “What Do You Come For?” and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker.” Director André Øvredal adapted Alvin Schwartz’s beloved book series and Stephen Gammell’s creepy illustrations, delivering a gateway horror movie perfect for the Halloween season. But the filmmaker didn’t skimp on the scares, especially when it came to the Jangly Man’s grand entrance.
On Halloween in 1968, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) decide to play a prank on teen bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). Enraged, Tommy and his gang retaliate, forcing the trio to hide in the nearby drive-in theater. They meet a drifter, Ramon (Michael Garza), and invite him to explore a local haunted house. There, Stella finds and takes a book of horror stories written by Sarah Bellows, the family’s black sheep that once owned the place. Soon, Stella realizes new stories are writing themselves in her book, and those stories have horrifying real-world consequences.
The Story So Far
Tommy is the first affected by the book. As “Harold” appears in red ink, Tommy is stalked and menaced by his family’s scarecrow, Harold, on the farm. The scarecrow runs him through with a pitchfork, transforming the bully into a new scarecrow. His family reports him missing. Then, “The Big Toe” accounts for Auggie’s disappearance, as he’s stalked and claimed by a gangly corpse looking for their missing toe. As Stella begins connected the dots, Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) suffers a repulsive new blemish on her face that ruptures with the birth of hundreds of spiders, as the book relays her tale in “The Red Spot.”
Stella, Ramon, and Chuck race to the hospital to search through Sarah Bellows’s family history for answers, but the Pale Lady claims Chuck. Stella and Ramon are arrested for trespassing, with Police Chief Turner (Gil Bellows) determined to detain Ramon for draft dodging. He doesn’t get far, though.
A thunderstorm rages outside, knocking the lights out at the police station. Stella pleads with Chief Turner to let her and Ramon out of their cells before they all perish, but he’s distracted by his dog’s strange behavior. The dog is focused on unusual sounds emanating from the chimney. The sounds become growls, which turn into grunts, and finally, a head bounces out onto the floor. Its eyes open. Uttering “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker” prompts Chief Turner to unload his firearm into the head in fear, but it only grins as the rest of its body and limbs tunnel down the chimney in pieces. The pieces come together, not quite right, and the now-fully intact creature snaps Turner’s neck.
This scene ushers in the final act, which sees the Jangly Man chase after the Ramon while Stella seeks to appease Sarah Bellows’s restless spirit for good. The methodical introduction to this monster helps establish the stakes for the climax. It’s made memorable for two reasons; the Jangly Man’s physicality is unsettling, and the creature effectively removes the teen’s protection by killing the Sheriff. If the monster can dispatch an adult authority figure with ease, then odds for survival decrease dramatically for young teens without weapons.
There’s an inherent unpredictability about body parts that fall down a chimney, yet animate independently of each other. Or rather, it’s just plain spooky. The measured way in which Øvredal slowly pieces the Jangly Man together would be terrifying enough, but it’s the crooked, backward way in which its head fixes atop its neck that truly triggers the alarm bells to start running. Except, Stella and Ramon are trapped in jail cells. Through James’ distinct contortive walk, the Jangly Man crawls toward them in a way no average body can bend. It’s this inhuman crawl that solidifies the Jangly Man’s ranking as the film’s scariest creature.
The Jangly Man is a movie monster made by special effects, Øvredal’s vision, and Schwartz’s source stories. What sets him apart is James’s physicality and eerie movement, something very few, if any, actors could achieve in the way he does. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may not frighten the hardened grown-up horror fan, but Øvredal doesn’t hold back on the scares for the young teen audience it’s aimed toward. That starts with the monsters inspired directly from Gammell’s iconic illustrations and their related stories and continues with the creature designs. Still, they’d just be two-dimensional renderings without goosebump-inducing performances to bring them to life. “Twisty” Troy James’s uncanny contortionist crawl unleashes pure nightmare fuel with the Jangly Man.