When your movie is called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it better be is scary. With Guillermo del Toro shepherding the production, hopes were skyhigh. Then came the quick teasers scattered throughout the Super Bowl and it appeared they’d hit the nail on the head. At least it looked like a movie based on Alvin Schwartz’s beloved “children’s” books. Stephen Gammell’s creepy AF illustrations had come to life and looked scary as hell.
Unfortunately, the movie never completely lives up to its name. Creepy in moments, hilarious in others, but never shocking or unsettling. And while bumping the film up to an R rating wouldn’t have necessarily helped — there’s plenty of gruesomeness on display — Del Toro and director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunters) have at least delivered a slick, fast-paced exercise in ’80s “Steven Spielberg Presents” nostalgia.
It’s 1968 in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) head out for one last night of trick or treating before they’re officially too old. A prank on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) goes south, interrupting Tommy’s “date” with Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn).
After seeking refuge in Ramón’s (Michael Garza) car at the drive in, they all wind up at the local haunted Bellows house. Things turn from bad to worse after Stella takes a book home — belonging to Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) — cursing them all to face fate as the stories and monsters in Sarah’s book become real and looking for all of them.
A sense of adventure and humor go a long way to keep the Scary Stories moving along. There are enough Scary Stories to tell, but at almost two hours, it’s maybe just a tad too long for its own good. Thankfully, the Spielberg vibe makes the film a lot of fun and the cast have great rapport and you feel for the kids safety, even if Dan and Kevin Hageman’s screenplay is a bit episodic.
Øvredal employs his monsters to great effect with plenty of practicality lending a physical sense of threat. Where Scary Stories could have been overstuffed with CGI — and I’m sure there’s still plenty — it’s used to enhance scenes, rather than the scenes rely on them. There’s also a surprising lack of big boo moments, which is a nice change of pace. This Scary Stories lends itself more to the suspense/thriller genre than outright horror. Something that’s not usually found with youth-geared horror movies.
An air of mystery gives a Scooby Doo atmosphere — even if the denouement has been played out a million times. But, hopefully the audience sets its anticipation correctly and doesn’t go in expecting a hardcore horror flick. The Spielberg touch keeps the film from taking itself too seriously, even if The Jangly Man will wind up being one of the creepiest visuals of the year.
From stew to chimneys, to corn fields and restrooms, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has plenty of fun up its sleeve and even ends with room for a sequel. Here’s to hoping the weekend proves the audience remains for Schwartz and Gammell’s twisted tales and can get even scarier from here. Hopefully it unites fans who read the books as kids since it gives us the ultimate opportunity to pass them along to scare a whole new generation.