Adapted from the creepy children’s series that has haunted book fairs for decades, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark stars Zoe Colleti as Stella, a teenaged horror fanatic who also fancies herself a writer. It’s Halloween 1968 and Stella’s friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) convince her to come out and help them get back at the school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) with a prank. While being chased by Tommy and his gang, the trio meet the new kid in town Ramón (Michael Garza) and they hide together in a haunted house until the coast is clear. It’s there that they discover a creepy book that pens spooky tales on its own, which soon manifest themselves into real-life events.
Even those who haven’t read the books from Alvin Schwartz’s series are likely familiar with the corresponding illustrations by Stephen Gammell and the film wisely uses his unsettling imagery as a starting point. At the center of each of the six twisted tales that come to life before our eyes in real time is a terrifying creature (or series of creatures) plucked straight out of a disturbing nightmare.
The influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, the mind behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, is seen clearly in the stellar creature design that beautifully integrates costumes and computer-generated effects.
Norwegian director André Øvredal is at his best when he is gleefully crafting the chilling setpieces that feature the monsters lurching slowly towards our protagonists. All of the scares conjured up from these spooky scenes are all about evenly matched in terms of quality.
But one story, entitled The Dream, stands out among the rest. Trapped in a hospital corridor drenched in red light, one of our main characters peers down a series of endless hallways looking for an exit, only to find the same figure, which readers will recognize as the Pale Lady from the books, creeping towards him from every direction. This sequence alone should give horror fans enough nightmare fuel to hold them over until It: Chapter Two opens next month.
As much time and effort was put into bringing the horrific artwork of the books to the big screen, I wish more work had been put into the overarching narrative that surrounds each of these scary stories. The screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman leans on stock characters (The Nerdy Protagonist, The Prankster, The Bully, etc.) that we’ve seen plenty of times before. The young cast of mostly unknown actors do their best with the material, but there really isn’t enough on the page to develop their characters past their shallow foundations. Once the kids get to the bottom of what makes the book produce these horrifying incidents, the plot revelations are unsurprising and hardly satisfying.
Fortunately, the film frequently succeeds at its primary objective, which, naturally, is to scare its audience and hopefully haunt them a bit after they leave the theater. It’s likely that audience will skew a bit younger as well, thanks to the PG-13 rating that allows teens to get their share of frights.
Too often in the horror genre, movies include enough gore and violence to merit an R rating but then settle for cheap jump scares instead of genuine suspense (last year’s The Nun is a prime example). Kudos to Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark for proving that you don’t need blood and guts to get under people’s skin. Coming to theaters this weekend
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