Studio: CBS Films
Director: Andre Ovredal
Writer: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
Producer: Guillermo del Toro, Sean Daniel, Jason F. Brown, J. Miles Dale, Elizabeth Grave
Stars: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Austin Abrams, Natalie Ganzhorn, Lorraine Toussaint
In 1968, four teenage friends discover a cursed book whose supernatural stories come to life to haunt their small hometown.
I think it’s fair to say that the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books occupy the next logical point of progression for parents and/or young readers anxious to graduate from the relative good humor of R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” to YA terror tales with more serious substance. Author Alvin Schwartz’s fear-filled folktale collections retain a streak of strange silliness where a monster might mutter nonsense like, “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” Yet when the comedic capers of a cursed ventriloquist dummy no longer inspire odd imaginations, “Scary Stories” offers the macabre maturity of heftier horror with gruesome fates and higher stakes.
It’s also fair to say that the movie inspired by Schwartz’s three books thus bridges the gap between the comparatively safer PG thrills of the “Goosebumps” movies and R-rated scares that remain out of reach. By virtue of its teenage heroes, small town setting, and urban legend eeriness, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” still stokes a fire for frights with some junior high appeal. But it is not as fully family-friendly as its Jack Black-starring peers, making for a darker horror movie that might be exactly what one wants from a PG-13 middle ground.
Two paragraphs through and I’ve already used “Goosebumps” as a measuring stick twice. Those won’t be the last two times either. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” makes it difficult to put the other books/movies out of mind. Particularly since “Scary Stories” and “Goosebumps” (review here) both form their foundations from an identical setup of a haunted storybook coming to life.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” takes place in late 1968, although the retro time period is mostly only used to make one person a draft dodger. Richard Nixon repeatedly pops up in cutaway clips and characters make idle remarks about ‘Tricky Dick.’ I admit I gave it no more than a minute of thought, but I’m not sure what the backdrop of Nixon’s presidential election means to say as a statement or as a setting. Perhaps there is some parallel with the current political climate or some commentary about the end of American innocence, but I wasn’t keen enough to pick it up personally.
The date allows the movie to indulge in nostalgia for things like drive-in theaters and classic creature features. But if not for those recurring Nixon needles, you might never remember what year the film takes place in as even the absence of modern technology becomes a non-issue.
The stories Alvin Schwartz researched for his books of course came from longtime lore told and retold over countless decades. The movie incarnation doesn’t stop there in its employment of traditional tropes though. Particularly where characters are concerned, expect more than a few cinematic clichés to get swirled into the mix.
“Scary Stories” features four core friends anchored around Stella Nicholls. Stella meets the criteria for the introverted bookworm stereotype, sheepishly aspiring to be a writer yet afraid of any action that might leave her emotionally troubled single father in the lurch. She pals around with Chuck, the overly animated smart aleck, and Auggie, an awkward dork who is mostly misunderstood.
While running from Tommy, the letterman-jacketed school bully, Stella, Chuck, and Auggie meet Ramon. An out-of-towner who came to town for initially unknown reasons, Ramon and Stella take a mutual interest in one another while adding the fourth corner to their friend square.
Halloween Night presents the perfect time for the quirky quartet to explore a reportedly haunted mansion on a lark. Rumor has it the family who once lived there kept a daughter locked in a secret room. A writer like Stella, Sarah Bellows was thought to be behind a rash of child killings in the late 1800s. Supposedly, kids who came to the house in search of Sarah could ask for a story, except it would be the last story they ever heard.
Long backstory short, Stella and company confront the legend firsthand when they discover Sarah’s handwritten storybook. On the book’s empty pages, new tales supernaturally write themselves in blood right before Stella’s eyes. What’s worse, each yarn features someone Stella knows. Truth becomes as strange as fiction when the stories play out in reality, turning people all over town into tragic victims of terrible tales.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” takes its time ramping up. As a result, its pace isn’t as peppy as “Goosebumps.” Not that it should be or has to be since that lighter-stepping alternative already exists. Nevertheless, “Scary Stories” does feel effects of slowdown from the drag into dark dread where true-life horrors like The Vietnam War hang overhead.
Playing like a chain of linked vignettes as opposed to an anthology masquerading as a feature, individual stories have some of their kick reduced by featuring identical outcomes. “Scary Stories” includes live-action takes on “Harold,” “The Big Toe,” “The Dream,” “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” “The Red Spot,” and “The Haunted House.” The first four of those are just similar spins on a creature shambling toward a kid before consuming or transforming him somehow. I wouldn’t dub these segments as particularly deep, but maybe that’s the source material’s fault.
A criticism that cannot be boomeranged back to the books involves the film adaptation’s extended development history. John August drafted one script and Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton did another. Producer Guillermo del Toro shares “Story By” credit with Dunstan and Melton while Dan and Kevin Hageman are credited with actually writing the screenplay.
Ripples from that many cooks in the kitchen can be felt in some malnourished relationships. Dean Norris appears as Stella’s dad for a few scattered moments, only one of which has any real emotional weight. Gil Bellows plays a police chief without a first name, included to force a rivalry with Ramon that doesn’t receive real estate to fully bloom. Several arcs and introductions are clearly left over from deeper drafts but are now slimmer skeletons of their formerly fuller selves.
Luckily, director Andre Ovredal compensates for thin fiction with strong imagery that perfectly mimics Stephen Gammell’s memorable illustrations. Harold, The Pale Lady, The Jangly Man, and more appear in all their disproportionate glory as visual grotesqueries earning easy imprints in the mind’s eye. Hallways drenched in red lights, shadows beneath beds, and inescapable cornfield mazes all become nightmarish milieus for childhood fears given flesh. No matter what its narrative faults might be, “Scary Stories” certainly knows how to set unsettling moods capable of pimpling skin.
Another huge feather in the film’s cap comes courtesy of its charismatic cast. Zoe Colletti is incredibly endearing as Stella, almost heartbreakingly so. To its benefit or detriment depending on your angle of approach, sullen subplots take up a fair amount of space in “Scary Stories.” Colletti’s commitment to caging inner turmoil until turning it loose with waterworks tugs at heartstrings on a level fit for elevated drama.
Austin Abrams doesn’t stick around long, yet embodies a pitch perfect jock you just want to smack when he is onscreen. “Scary Stories” doesn’t completely capitalize on the camaraderie between Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur as Chuck and Auggie. But yet again, when they are featured, their chemistry adds an air that leans the movie back toward amusing tones until creeps amp up with sentient severed heads and pop scares.
If the open ending has its way, plenty of untapped potential exists, certainly in the books but also in the friendship fostered between the main foursome, to harvest an even heartier sequel. For the time being, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” has enough gas in its tank to get across the finish line on the strength of its roster, raw material, and flourishes of creepy creativity. There are definitely hiccups regarding how much slack exists in certain side stories, not to mention weakened impact from following familiar formulas. But considering all of the people and plotlines being wrangled, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” has to qualify as a win. If not for fright film fandom as a whole, then at least for those born in the 21st century who hunger to sink appreciative teeth into PG-13 horror.
Review Score: 65