Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a new horror film based on the best-selling collection of short horror stories for children by Alvin Schwartz. Set in the fall of 1968, this big-screen adaptation follows a group of teenagers in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania who go into an abandoned mansion on Halloween night and find a book full of scary stories written by a girl with a tortured past named Sarah Bellows. That premise is about as Stephen King-level horror as you come. The group soon discovers that a new story is being written each night in the book and should one of their names be revealed in that story, then a monster from the tale will come to life and kill them.
Given how I attained a Wednesday night screening before Scary Stories’ release (usually not a good sign), my hopes for this film were low at first. However, the arrival of producer Guillermo del Toro and director André Øvredal, both of whom introduced this screening to the audience, made me slightly more optimistic. Upon finally seeing the movie, I’ll say that it’s not bad, but is still far from amazing.
The biggest praise I can give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is in its filmmaking. From the costumes to the production design, this movie definitely looks and feels like it takes place in sixties America, although not quite as vividly authentic as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. References to events of that era like the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War definitely help immerse you in the film’s period piece vibe.
It’s in the horrifying set pieces where this film truly comes to life. Although I never read the Scary Stories books, the film’s monsters are fairly accurate to the drawings I saw, perfectly capturing their surrealistic nightmarish designs. As for the scenes themselves, they are mostly scary outside of the occasional predictable jump scare, with my favorite sequence involving a red room and a pale lady where….well, fans of the books will probably know what I am talking about. Øvredal does a terrific job at crafting suspense and presenting imagery so disturbing that I was shocked at how this movie earned a PG-13 rating.
Unfortunately, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark‘s characters are far less stellar. All the child acting is pretty good for the most part, but their characters are not very memorable. Zoe Margaret Colletti delivers the film’s best performance as protagonist Stella Nichols, who wants to write her own stories but doesn’t want to leave town as she must take care of her father Roy (Dean Norris of Breaking Bad fame) after her mother left. Michael Garza is also great as the slick drifter Ramon Morales, who gets caught up with the main character’s adventures and must work with them to save his life. Colletti and Garza share decent chemistry together but it’s painfully obvious where the film will take their relationship.
Even with that in mind, I doubt I’ll remember any of these characters in the next week. It’s clever how some of these stories are tied to certain characters’ fears, but that element isn’t explored to its fullest potential. I also had to get this out of the way: Austin Abrams, who more recently appeared in HBO’s Euphoria, looks too nerdy to play a convincing asshole jock (no offense) but he is not in the movie for long so it’s not a big deal.
The overarching narrative of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is also where I have concerns. Del Toro, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, explained at my screening that he hoped this movie would motivate people who haven’t already read the book to read it. I’ll admit I want to read the book just to see how these stories originally play out, but that is the extent of what the film accomplishes since its plot is pretty basic overall. After the main characters find Sarah Bellows’s book, the monsters appear in the same way as the Goosebumps movie and the rest of this film is devoted to these characters figuring out how to not die. It is simple enough, but not really noteworthy.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of 2017’s It, at least that film allowed the audiences to know its individual characters, whereas I barely know who’s who in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. That could’ve been a pacing choice since the movie is only an hour and forty-seven minutes long, but it keeps audiences from truly investing in these characters’ plight. On a more positive note, I appreciate how screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman inject levity into the film and ultimately make it a more accessible horror feature. Conversely, I was unsure about the ending, which will probably divide people in its execution.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is far from perfect, but it’s entertaining enough to watch in theaters. Forgettable characters and mediocre story aside, the frightening set pieces are worth the price of admission. In fact, the set pieces are why I rated this movie as high as I did.