It’s strange to watch a movie that’s occasionally not in your age range. I’m not adverse to stories meant for younger audiences, as some of the best ones have a universal reach. Sometimes we read a story when we’re young, and for one reason or another, it stays with us because it was able to create a foundation through its morals…or fear. For many people my age, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark left an imprint on them through its series of nightmarish short stories accompanied by disturbing illustrations. I wasn’t one of those kids; I’ve heard that the books, of which there were three volumes, were a sort of companion piece to the R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, which I was a fan of. The comparison allowed me to wrap my mind around the film adaption, at least in what to expect regarding scares and tone. With Guillermo del Toro producing, and André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) directing, I had hopes that they would treat the material seriously, unlike the recent Goosebumps adaptations.
The end result is a solid effort of creepiness and some good humor, though the script struggles to frame what’s essentially a series of vignettes.
The story begins on Halloween night in 1968 with three friends attempting to play a prank on their school bully. The trio consist of Stella (Zoe Margaret Colleti), an amateur horror writer, along with Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). The bully is Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams), who the group evades with the help of Ramon (Michael Garza), a young drifter with a secret. Their shenanigans leads them to a local haunted house which belonged to the Bellows family, who put the town on the map. Inside they find a secret room and a book of scary stories belonging to Sarah Bellows, a figure of town legend and death. Soon enough, Stella sees new stories being written in the book before her eyes, and as they’re written, they take shape in reality. Whoever is the protagonist of the story, that person is doomed to a grim fate based on their innermost fears.
Going into the film, I figured that its greatest obstacle would be finding a balance between immaturity and horror. As you can’t take terrible things seriously if everything else seems like a “kids movie.” However, to my somewhat surprise, the balance is rather well handled. The horror elements are suspenseful, unsettling and even gruesome at times; the immaturity comes from the juvenile humor throughout, but I mostly found said humor to be amusing enough that it never became a distraction. You could say it even enhances the film. A negative is that the film is infused with some bad dialogue, but it isn’t poor because its said by young people, it’s poor because it’s lazy and corny. “You don’t just read the book. The book reads you” in particular got an audible groan in the theater.
The film is at its best when it sticks to the short stories and treats them as a stand-alone scenes that builds with dread. Even more impressive is how differently each of these scenes pay-off. One builds to a jump scare that’s better than most in the Conjuring Universe; one involving “The Pale Lady” seems to come from a childhood nightmare that I can no longer remember, or maybe I just don’t want to.
While these individual scenes are well done, the main story that surrounds them is lacking. The finding of the book is a good set-up for the rest of the film, and it establishes a main villain in the spirit of Sarah Bellows; however, it’s completely unremarkable in how it plays out. And that downgrade in quality when put up against those strong individual scenes only makes it all the more glaring. The climax of the film suffers because of this too, where what should be an exciting ending actually comes across as an all too easy wrap-up.
Still, the film has strong performances from its young actors – Zoe Margaret Colleti brings a great deal of heart to Stella, doing her best with a mediocre backstory; Michael Garza’s character in most films like this would be incredibly dull, but he’s quite good here; Austin Zajur and Gabriel Rush are the comic relief, but they’re funny comic relief; finally, Austin Abrams is a worthy bully. The adult actors like Dean Norris and Gil Bellows are kind of wasted; Bellows is only there to be a racist cop who hates draft dodgers, reminding us that we’re in the 1960’s. We also get some pandering moments where characters tell us how much they hate Nixon, which took me out of the film as opposed to adding to it.
André Øvredal’s visual talent and ability to create suspense combined with del Toro’s affinity for blending practical creature effects with CGI end up giving the film a strong identity. Those who are fans of the source material have praised the film for bringing it to life, while I can’t speak to that, I can say that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will be a strong gateway film for a younger audience that’s looking to get into the horror genre. For the rest of us…it’s decent Friday night at the movies, sometimes better than that. Overall I wish it was presented as a Netflix series, highlighting what it does best. Then again, I’m only occasionally its target audience.