Based on the trilogy of children books, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark directed by André Øvredal is the perfect movie for people on a horror diet. It’s horror lite.
It’s hard to piece together a workable narrative with nothing but a collection of short horror stories written for children to work from, yet Øvredal and screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman manage it pretty well. Based on the series of twisted horror stories by Alvin Schwartz, stories that gave me nightmares in the fourth grade, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film adaptation holds up to the original work’s fantastic horror while keeping its childlike delicacy.
One thing that made the “Scary Stories” books so unique was that it was terrifying literature written for children, yet if you go back and read them as an adult, you’d be very aware of its target audience. That’s what this film feels like, deep-rooted fear inside a Scooby-Doo mystery.
Set in 1968, the film tells the story of Stella (Zoe Colletti), an aspiring writer wounded by her mother’s abrupt abandonment who comes across a hand-written book filled with scary stories that once belonged to an alleged child murderer. They quickly realize that the book is much more than a book of stories and that the original owner isn’t done writing them.
Joining her are her two friends, August “Auggie” (Gabriel Rush), Charlie “Chuck” (Austin Zajur) and the new kid no one knows much about, Ramon (Michael Garza). They’re the Mystery Gang minus the groovy bus and ascot. They’re also an incredibly naive bunch, the Mystery Gang would have never walked into a haunted house and taken a book they believed was owned by a ghost, a book that supposedly had the power to kill people. Haven’t they ever seen a scary movie?
One thing about this film is certain and that’s André Øvredal is an excellent horror director. The monsters match their original grotesque designs from Schwartz’s books and the sequences in which they appear in might as well have been taken straight from real, honest nightmares. They are the highlight of the movie, the standout point that will be what most people remember upon leaving the theater.
Slow suspense is its style, so even though there are little to no jump scares, you’ll still be hiding behind your hands as some ugly creature creeps toward its victim like it’s got all the time in the world.
The plot of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a mix of things. Simple, straightforward, fun, scary but mostly juvenile. There were multiple points in the movie when I wanted to roll my eyes for the cliche checklist they might as well have had laying on the screen. From the lonely group of kids that wander into the haunted house everyone in town has a story about, to the misunderstood ghost killing people.
There is also an issue with character development, in that there isn’t enough time for any. There are five kids introduced, the protagonist and her three friends, one of those friend’s sister, and a local bully, and none of them ever grow past their respective titles; the lonely girl, the guy with a secret, the chunky comic relief, the prom queen, the jock, and the nerd. It’s a Breakfast Club Halloween special.
The two standouts are Ramon who you instantly feel sympathy for, and Chuck, the comic relief. Everyone else remains somewhat two-dimensional. Minor subplots without buildup suddenly become important out of the blue, but at that point, the monsters hunting the children have already absorbed so much of the story, you can’t find yourself caring about why Stella blames herself for her mother leaving. Just get on with it and get back to fighting those monsters.
I’m not saying the plot is bad, but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes itself a little too seriously. It doesn’t seem aware of the fact that it’s a run of the mill PG-13 horror movie, but even so, it keeps in tone with its subject material. Fans of the books will definitely be pleased, the best way to describe this movie is a dark children’s story that’s cranked up on the fear factor.
There’s plenty left hanging to create a sequel, opening the door for even more stories to tell. In fact, the ending basically admits it has plans for a sequel, you’ll understand when you see it. Some of Schwartz’s stories that appear in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are, “The Red Spot”, “Harold”, “The Hearse Song”, “The Haunted House”, “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!”, “The Dream”, and “The Big Toe.”
Overall, I give it a 6.9/10, all good fun.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is playing in theaters nationwide. It’s rated PG-13 for terror and scary sequences, but there’s no blood or gore. It’s good fun, go see it.