The adaptation of the popular book for kids gets the spooky treatment in this intense horror adaptation that’s low on thrills but high on tension
In 1981 author Alvin Schwartz penned Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, an anthology collection of short horror stories aimed at children based around American folklore and original works. The books took on a life of their own, terrorizing a generation of children and being banned by some libraries for their frightening imagery. On the surface, an adaptation of a cluster of short stories would be a disjointed mess, but director Andre Ovredal and co-writer Guillermo del Toro craft a well-shot movie that pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, even if the overall impact is muted.
The two of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania is haunted by its past. More specifically, it’s haunted by the Bellows family, who hid their deranged daughter Sarah away from the world. A group of teens on Halloween decide to visit the Bellows house, absconding with Sarah’s book of scary stories. But as introvert Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) starts to read Sarah’s stories the book starts to take on a life of its own, crafting new stories (and horrible fates) for Stella and her friends.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has the narrative drive of an extended episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark or Fox’s Goosebumps series. That means that the story feels incredibly simplistic and plays out much as you’d expect. Four disparate teens are brought together, two with existential issues that make the horror feel particularly allegorical, only to fight it and come out the other side better people (and with room for a sequel). Colletti’s Stella is the feature’s de facto lead and she’s certainly compelling. The character endures horrid rumors about her mother, who left their family when Stella was young. This has led Stella to isolate herself in the world of horror and remain distant from her father (Dean Norris).
Stella’s story is placed alongside that of Ramon (MIchael Garza), a Latino draft dodger experiencing the racism against Mexican Americans we’re seeing now and that is often ignored in movies that glamorize the 1960s. Then there’s the character of Sarah Bellows herself, whom the script never wants to present as a boogeyman but that of an outsider. Her issues are presented as being similar to a disability, which is a tired trope, particularly in a year where disability has been the conflict celeb.
But the story feels ancillary to the frights, which is to be expected. The goal of this PG-13 horror feature is to entice the cell phone generation, so while the characters feel basic (and the actors go above and beyond to make you root for them) they’re always in service to the horrors of the original novel. Unless you’ve read Schwartz’s books recently you’ll be hard-pressed to remember or notice specific scenes, short of the frightening scarecrow Harold or maybe the “Big Toe” story.
Del Toro’s fingerprints on the script are most evident during these scenes when the anticipation is running high and the creatures feel like tangible beings. The movie goes shockingly hard for a PG-13 film, with teens (who look it, an important distinction) having unhappy endings. A scene with a pitchfork is especially brutal, while the oft-advertised pimple sequence remains just as squeamish in execution as it is in advertising.
But really it’s hard to find anything about the movie particularly memorable if you’re not a recent reader of the source material or in its target audience. This is a movie firmly for the 13-15 year-old crowd and even then it’s a hard sell because of how generic the whole thing feels. If you’ve seen the Goosebumps adaptation, this is highly similar territory and your litmus test for this feature.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a solid starter for kids interested in horror, skirting the line between safety and extremity. The story is fairly standard but is compensated by the monster effects.