Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a spooky, well-spun adaption of author Alvin Schwartz’s beloved anthology of short stories which brings them together for a good family adventure, but only the mildest of scares. On Halloween night, friends Stella, Chuck, Auggie and Ramon break into the haunted Bellows mansion. Hoping to see the ghost of Sarah Bellows, they uncover a book of terrifying stories written by her instead. When one by one the stories come true, the gang searches Sarah’s past for clues on how to end her curse.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark occupies the oft-used middle ground between scary and family friendly, horror and adventure. A flick produced by Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak, Hellboy) and directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunter), there’s a small expectation for the movie to share blood with their past works. But packed into a PG-13 rating, the scares are contained and muted, which will certainly disappoint the wider horror audience and fans of these two’s past work. But if you come to it on its own terms, there’s fun to be had.
The story bleeds its late 60’s setting all over with trips to drive-ins, references to classic horror, and headlines from Vietnam on every television in the small Pennsylvanian town of Mill Valley. Homages to Stephen King novels and subsequent adaptions are all over place, particularly when it comes to the pain some of its characters bare in this teen-centric story. The cast of spunky adolescents is led by Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella, a bold aspiring writer, who is joined by the resourceful Michael Garza as Ramon, a bashful Gabriel Rush as Auggie, and Austin Zajur playing the All-American mischief-maker Chuck.
Scary Stories is exactly as advertised, a movie packed with the ghouls that populate the pages of the books, which is a strength, but also its weaknesses too. Schwartz’s anthologies are the perfect tomes for campers huddling around a fire trying to scare the bejeezus out of each other. The movie operates just like one. The setups are un-complicated, easy to follow, and have a couple of frights. The first few stories will snatch your attention and give you the heepie-jeepies. Then your interest will start to wane. By trying to tell six stories under one large narrative, the whole becomes procedural and repetitive. And when you can anticipate what’s next, the ride is over.
The tamped down frights are unfortunate because the ghosts and ghouls who move out of myth and materialize from Schwartz’s stories to terrify the town are signature creations of del Toro and the movie magic he empowers his props and costume departments to create. Every one of them makes striking and shivering first appearance. It’s just a shame their bark is worse than their bite. Scary Stories doesn’t have the follow through to truly frighten you past a pair of jump scares and ominous locations. You won’t find yourself glancing over your shoulder or sleeping with the lights on afterwards.
So the adventure leans on the inquisitive kids scouring the town of Mill Valley looking for clues into who Sarah Bellows really was. There’s plenty of funny and friendly ripping to make you feel like one of the gang. Their investigation opens the door to a sympathetic look at not only dark presence looming over the story, but urban legends as a whole which are often rooted in demonizing the other or those on the margins of society for a myriad of reasons. The story puts Sarah Bellows and the stories she haunts the town with in this type of mold.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark can best be viewed as a quality, but small stepping stone to the larger world of horror for younger audiences. To its credit, it lacks the goofier qualities which family movies with darker elements use to balance their stories, while still keeping the mood dramatic. However, as well crafted as it may be, it lacks any true sense of fear or excitement to be worthy of the sequel the film so desperately wants by the movie’s end.
3.5 ticket stubs out of 5
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is rated PG-13 for for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.
Did you see Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? If so, let us know what you thought in the comments! But remember, we’re all friends here, so keep the conversation civil. If you want more coverage on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, check out the crew’s review in this episode of Friends and Film!