Review: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a horror film produced from a screen story by monster master Guillermo del Toro.  But those who aren’t familiar with its history may be surprised to learn that the source material is a beloved book series written for children.  The three volumes of stories written by Alvin Schwartz were published between 1981 and 1991 and are known for their creepy black and white illustrations by Stephen Gammell and the controversy they’ve stirred up, thanks to accusations that the stories are inappropriate for children.  Less controversial, however, is the film version directed by André Øvredal, a relatively tame PG-13 horror movie that is aimed squarely at teen audiences.

The film opens on Halloween in 1968 small town Pennsylvania.  It begins with all the hallmarks of any other teen movie: three friends—the horror obsessed Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and the awkward Chuck (Austin Zajur) are outrunning jock bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) when they meet a young drifter named Ramon (Michael Garza).  They decide it will be fun to explore the abandoned Bellows house; decades earlier, Sarah Bellows went insane and killed herself, and her family left town.  The house is now the subject of urban legend and, naturally, is haunted.  Stella finds Sarah’s book of scary stories in the house and brings it home with her, but the book suddenly starts writing new stories on its own—stories that come true, and that result in the disappearance of Stella’s friends.  Now Stella and Ramon must discover the truth behind Sarah’s past, before it’s too late.

Ramon (Michael Garza) and Stella (Zoe Colletti) have a creepy encounter with Harold the scarecrow

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” cleverly finds a way to incorporate multiple stories and references from the original books without turning into an anthology film.  Sarah Bellows and her book act as a great framing device, allowing popular stories like “The Big Toe” and “The Red Spot” to come to life.  The crew also does a great job with the creatures in this movie, several of them almost exactly mirroring Gammell’s illustrations, like the Pale Lady.  They’re weird and scary and utterly unique—the situations they are placed in, however, are often uninspired. 

There are times in between stories where the pacing drags a bit, but Øvredal does a good enough job building suspense at other times in the movie so that this isn’t as much of an issue.  There is a lot of cutting back and forth between the character who’s in danger and the characters trying to save them that enhances the tension.  In the scene with the aforementioned Pale Lady, Øvredal cuts frequently cuts between her and another character, but brings the audience closer to her every time we see her.  It, like many of the other sequences in the movie, is nicely done, but isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.  It isn’t bad, but it isn’t memorable, and because this movie is aimed at a young crowd, it’s entertaining, but isn’t actually scary.  A couple of the sequences are more gross than anything else.  As this story is set in the midst of the Vietnam War, it makes an attempt to deliver the “war is the real horror” message, but even that lacks impact.  And rather than ending on a strong point, the film ends with a vague finale that tries to set up an unnecessary sequel.

Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) ends up in a scary story of her own

Colletti’s Stella and Garza’s Ramon are great characters to follow, however, even if we don’t get to know the other characters as well enough to care about what happens to them.  They are joined by Dean Norris as Stella’s overworked dad, Natalie Ganzhorn as Chuck’s prim sister Ruth, and Gil Bellows the police chief.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” will be a nice movie to casually turn on in October.  It’s engaging enough for viewers who aren’t familiar with the source material, but has plenty of references for those who are.  And it’s nice to see a contemporary horror movie that prioritizes its story over blood and gore.  But it sadly leaves you wondering just what it would have been like had del Toro directed it instead.

Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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