A thick, severed toe floats to the surface of a meat stew, ready to be unwittingly eaten. A decapitated head rolls down a chimney, then leaps to maniacal, vaudevillian life, shouting and singing. A spider bite on a cheek keeps growing and growing, building to an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. Like scouts huddled around a campfire, each trying to send a bigger chill down the others’ spines, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark keeps coming up with new gruesome attractions, piling one on top of the next. Yet as gross and spooky and, on the occasion, frightening as these terror tactics get, they never quite cross into the deep end of truly grown-up horror. That’s intentional, and a large key to this film’s fun: It gets away with everything it can on a PG-13 leash, smuggling some real scares to the under-seventeen crowd.
Set in 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), her friends Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), and their new pal Ramón (Michael Garza) are being chased by the local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) when they end up in the haunted home of town legend Sarah Bellows. Sarah was supposedly locked in the basement of the family manor and told scary stories to the children through the wall of her locked confines. Those children would eventually disappear, and before long Sarah died under mysterious circumstances. When Stella discovers a strange book, she learns that the book “reads” people, scrawling out their stories on its own all tending to involve some kind of monster and a grim conclusion for the protagonist. The problem is the protagonists are everyone who was in the house when Stella found the book, and they must find a way to stop Sarah’s ghostly wrath before their fates are sealed.
You usually have to go back to the ’80s to find Hollywood studio movies that dare creep up to the line separating thrillers for adults from the all-ages kind. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the decade when the first of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories collections was published. The books, a staple read for many in elementary school libraries in the ’80s and ’90s, plainly retold various folklore and urban legends, with the focus on how to most effectively deliver them to a captivated crowd of fellow campers or sleepover peers. But what really branded the stories onto the collective imagination of its readers was the gloomy artwork by Stephen Gammell: unforgettable images of ghouls and phantoms, their grinning skulls dripping with vicious intentions. And many of those creatures are brought to life by director André Øvredal, working from a script co-written by premier monster lover Guillermo del Toro (who as well produces). Except Scary Stories makes little attempt to replicate Gammell’s monochromatically sardonic imagery (going for a more lively approach). Nor does it adhere to the anthology format of its source material. The approach is closer, conceptually speaking, to the 2015 Goosebumps movie, with Øvredal and del Toro cherry-picking some of the most memorable frights from Schwartz’s library.
Scary Stories works best when it prioritizes the scary stories at hand. Øvredal, who previously made Trollhunter and the solidly unnerving The Autopsy of Jane Doe, savors the suspense during set pieces which helps bring Schwartz’s ghoulish yarns to three-dimensional life. One, involving a boy alone in a cornfield with an eerie Scarecrow, as the boy walks through the cornfield he realizes he’s in a loop, consistently ending up at the same spot next to the Scarecrow, and that Scarecrow just might be moving. Øvredal slows the sequence down to an unnerving, heart-stopping crawl, delaying the big scare for minutes on end. Another delivers the Schwartz cornerstone of nightmarish inevitability by turning one of the kids’ bad dreams into self-fulfilling prophecy, as he gets cornered in a hospital, surrounded on all sides by pasty, obese, ghostly monsters shuffling their way down a red-tinted hallway. Øvredal, in general, directs with a fluid flair, gliding his camera around the quaint small-town setting like an evil spirit. Sure, there is the occasionally cheap, unneeded jump-scare. But Øvredal’s suspense driven fluidity in the end overpowers those occasional weak directorial moments.
The plot itself, though, often feels calibrated to capitalize on the popularity of the Amblin imitation Stranger Things. So yes, you’re looking at another Spielbergian throwback, yet one more indebted to Poltergeist than E.T. Del Toro, co-writing with Dan and Kevin Hageman, decorate this scary funhouse with explicit commentary on the dangers of spreading rumors and tall tales. A possible veiled attack on a culture of dangerous misinformation. Which, sure, might be a slight stretch for an adaptation for a kid-lit campfire tale collection, but looking at del Toro’s past filmography it might actually not be a stretch. Scary Stories fills the background of many scenes with the impending horrors of the real world; Nixon, Vietnam, and the 1968 election, while also having a subplot involving small-town racism faced by Ramón. Given its target audience, Scary Stories could have just focused on the spooky monsters and called it a day, but it takes some admirable extra steps. But with that though, the mixing of the commentary with the lacking overall character work does makes things become a little muddled. Bringing negatives with the positives.
None of this actually has much in common with the Scary Stories books, which pushed a stark dread. Here the absolutely stunning, largely practical effects driven, monstrosities are often wondrously creepy creations. Some even being as memorable as the original Gammell drawings. Still, in its intriguingly blurred demographic lines, Scary Stories manages to put its own spin on the material. If 2015’s Goosebumps provided a first step for kids, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is for adolescents. While it may not pack as much of a punch for adults who have no connection to the books, Scary Stories does justice to the material. And though Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has its muddled elements, it thrives when it prioritizes the lively, nightmarish supernatural-slasher moments.