If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, you may remember a certain creepy looking book at your local or school library. Specifically this one. Written by Alvin Schwartz, the book drew extra notoriety through the scary illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Nowadays, that’s what the three books in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Series are remembered for. Which is a shame, really, because the stories they contain are oftentimes just as creepy as the illustrations. Thankfully, CBS Films acquired the rights to a film version, which retells some of those stories and even re-imagines a couple of those macabre visuals.
The movie revolves around a group of kids in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1960s. While running from some local bullies, Stella, Augie, Chuck, and Ramon hide out in a haunted house those used to belong to the Bellows, the family that founded the town. Inside, they stumble upon the hidden room of Sarah Bellows, who the family kept locked away. Supposedly, Sarah would tell ghost stories to the local children, causing them to die one by one. In her room, Stella finds Sarah’s book of scary stories and takes it home. As she reads it, she realizes that the book keeps creating new stories on its own, each revolving around someone she knows and that person’s biggest fear. She quickly realizes that the events of the stories unfold in real life as they get written, and sets out to uncover the secrets of the book and save her friends.
It’s worth noting that the Scary Stories books, while scary, are still geared towards a younger audience, and the movie is no exception. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a PG-13 film, and while it may have more than enough scares for kids or adults who simply don’t watch a lot of horror movies, longtime fans of the genre may be somewhat let down. It’s also worth noting that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not an anthology movie, but rather a feature length film with a through line that ties multiple scary vignettes together. This proves to be the right choice, as each story gets room to breathe but also ties into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Andre Ovredal, who previously directed Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, takes the directing helm for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. His previous directing efforts show that he has an eye for the macabre, and the new horror film does in fact boast a great atmosphere. Taking place during Halloween, the movie effortlessly blends the spookiness of the season with the horror of the stories and even the fears surrounding that time period, involving racism, Vietnam, and Nixon. Seriously. The movie also has a great, self-aware sense of humor, and a couple of lines and bits had me laughing. A couple of the stories in the Scary Stories book series are meant to be more tongue-in-cheek instead of scary, and the movie does adapt one of these in a way that still feels natural. Otherwise, the adapted stories prove suitably creepy, if not downright scary. The only issue is that too often they feel cut-off, likely to have avoided a R-rating. But the best one proves that you don’t need gore or a graphic death scene to scary people. One of the later stories involves a recreation of one of Stephen Gammell’s infamous drawings, and proves unnerving. While easily the slowest paced of the stories adapted, the relentlessness of it makes it work excellently.
As for the cast, Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur doe a fine job as the four main kids, upon whose shoulders the film rests. Adults don’t figure very prominently, understandable for what is primarily a film for young adults, so a lot rests on the talent of the young actors. There isn’t one stand out performance, but they work as an ensemble to guide the audience through the lighter and darker aspects of the film, which sometimes change on a dime. The full cast for the film is surprisingly small, but this keeps the film moving. With a film all about guiding people through various narratives, the small cast allows the film to stay focused.
Developed by Guilllermo del Toro (the Academy Award-winning director produced and helped write the story), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does a great job of capturing the mood of the horror genre. The script and cast prove adequate, if the stories themselves don’t always work. What the movie lacks in scares it makes up for through creepy visuals. Again, mileage may vary depending on your what you want from a horror movie, but if you don’t mind a more entry-level horror experience, you could certainly do a lot worse.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may be more “Creepy Tales to Tell in the Evening,” but it still delivers a good time thanks to its haunting atmosphere and the focused directing of Andre Ovredal.