Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, and Dean Morris
“In the dark and the gloom, it is easy for someone listening to imagine all sorts of strange and scary things.”
Alvin Schwartz’s collection of scary stories for children played a pivotal role for many young horror kids in the 80’s and 90’s. The creepy tales, urban legends, and campfire yarns opened the creaky door to a generation of scary kids who would fill their summer reading lists with short stories about ghosts with bloody fingers, a corpse looking for their lost toe, and hook-armed killers stalking teenagers. It served as a gateway for many young horror fans into the world of the strange, the unusual, and the scary.
The pivotal novel finds its big screen adaptation at the hands of director André Øvredal, who’s big monster film “Troll Hunter” and unnerving supernatural film “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” seem fitting entries for a filmmaker tackling the eerie yet playful tone found within the short tales in “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”.
The film is positioned in 1968, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are going out on Halloween night with a plan to get revenge on some school bullies. Things take a turn for the worst, a stranger named Ramon (Michael Garza) steps in to protect the group of friends at the drive-in, and before Halloween is over they are all exploring a haunted mansion with a dark town secret. While searching the house, the group stumble onto a collection of books featuring stories from Sarah Bellows, a girl locked away for her entire life by an evil family.
From the opening moments, which features a voiceover that emulates the foreword from the novel, Øvredal establishes an atmosphere that is wholly creepy and mature but very quickly turns tailored for a younger audience. Having a group of young people as the focal point is a great touch, the composition of the friends have a vibe most familiar to “Stranger Things” with interesting touches from films like “Stand by Me” and “The Monster Squad”. It works well in establishing the environment of the film which starts with lighthearted and humorous banter between the group of friends, who have great chemistry with one another, before turning towards the scary elements. The composition of Stella, played nicely by Zoe Margaret Colletti, as a horror movie loving nerd is especially fun.
The screenplay, with a story by Guillermo del Toro that’s scripted by Kevin and Dan Hageman, does the difficult task of adding the overarching narrative with the kids and the haunted house within the anthology of stories from the novel. There are some really strong elements incorporated in parts of the film and a few problematic pieces that glaringly come to light when everything needs to be wrapped up at the end. The strong moments exist with the establishing of the characters and with how the stories from the books come to life in the film, specifically the story of a scarecrow and another about a walking corpse which are both completely creepy. Unfortunately, the film needs to find a conclusion to the story of four friends trying to escape the scary stories of a vengeful spirit, and in the process of maneuvering the twists and turns introduced through the tales of Sarah Bellows, the concluding 30 minutes is lost in its own maze of stories.
The frights throughout the film have fun building tension with payoffs that are mostly loud jump scares which works until the scares begin to thread on similar ground. The best of the scares work when the film commits to practical effects design, it just feels creepier and more threatening than the computer-generated effects which simply aren’t scary.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is having a lot of fun tailoring a film for a new generation of fright fans. While some aspects within the script don’t come together so nicely from start to finish, the overall tone feels just spooky enough to open the door for that young horror fan wanting to make the jump into the genre.
3.25 out of 5.00