Alvin Schwartz's young adult horror series comes to the big screen with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The books were controversial in the '80s and '90s because they dealt with often gruesome subject matter, despite being aimed at middle school-aged children. Defenders argued that it's okay for kids to be scared, and that having a safe manner of processing their fears is actually healthy. Director Andre Ovredal remains true to that belief. This is “fun” horror for teens (and adults) that features some legitimately spooky sights, yet nothing that could be described as traumatizing.
The film is set in a small Pennsylvania town during the late '60s and revolves around three friends. Stella (Zoe Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) engage in a little Halloween night mischief, angering the school bully in the process. While running from him, they meet Ramon (Michael Garza), a Mexican drifter making his way through town. They end up breaking into a local haunted house, an abandoned mansion that once belonged to the Bellows family. Rumor has long stated that the daughter, Sarah Bellows, wrote scary stories and that any child who heard one mysteriously disappeared.
Stella finds a tome of her writing, then discovers its dark power. The book pens its own stories -- in blood, no less -- which proceed to come true. The subjects of them are kids she knows, including her own friends. There is more to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark than that. Those surprises are best left discovered naturally.
The obvious approach to adapting Schwartz's work would be to make an anthology film. Thankfully, that isn't what we get. Weaving several of his tales into a larger plot is a much more rewarding approach. Every time Sara's book devises a new story, something pulled from Schwartz's imagination is referenced. If you're familiar with the series, you'll be excited to see certain elements brought to life visually. If you're not, the creativity of them will enthrall you.
Intense scenes appear frequently, each of them stylishly envisioned by Ovredal. One sequence, involving a chase through a mental hospital, is tinted red, which adds to the eerie effect as a particularly ominous-looking figure torments a character. Another scene begins with a pile of dismembered body parts and goes delightfully haywire. If there's one segment that's especially likely to get audiences squirming, it's when Chuck's sister develops a massive zit on the side of her face that provides the basis for one of the best gross-out scenes in recent memory.
The performances from the young cast members are exceptional, with Zoe Colletti a real standout. For that reason, it's disappointing that the movie doesn't fully develop Stella's personal story more. There's intermittent talk about her mother having left, an act for which she takes responsibility. Tying that idea into the main story to a greater degree would have strengthened everything. Same goes for Ramon's arc, which had the potential to say something of substance on the subject of racism.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is primarily focused on delivering horror. On that level, it's a great success. You won't find any blood or gore, just creepy sights and frightening concepts that tap into very primal fears. Jumping, gasping, and freaking out are fun when presented in the right spirit, with a playful sense of mischievousness. This movie has the right spirit.
out of four
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.