It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time-stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying home.
There is something so oddly endearing about reading scary stories to your friends when you are a kid, or having a scary story read to you. Even though you’re aware that you’re going to end up scared, you still have a tinge of excitement within you. What will the story be about? Does it feel real? And perhaps most importantly, will it be genuinely horrifying? This is what made Alvin Schwartz’s 1981 book so beloved amongst millions ever since. All of those elements were present in his book, and were chalked full of extremely terrifying stories and pictures to accompany it that not only have frightened children, but even adults.
André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has been on my radar ever since those creepy teasers were released during this year’s Super Bowl game, and I was hoping that it would do Schwartz’s original book justice. Gratefully, I can say that this film most certainly does in a number of ways.
One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because of the performances from all of the child actors, namely Zoe Colletti. Whenever a film features an almost entirely child cast, there can be a big danger present, as sometimes child actors just aren’t nearly as good as adults. That is most definitely not the case here. Much like Andy Muschietti’s 2017 interpretation of It, the young actors are featured almost primarily, and they do a great job. Colletti portrays Stella Nicholls, an aspiring horror writer who lives with her dad and is usually lonely. The journey her character goes on throughout Scary Stories is always one that is interesting, mainly because her backstory is interesting. Throughout the film, I always felt sympathy for her, and I was always rooting for her to succeed in every single scene.
The dynamic chemistry between all four main actors – Colletti, Michael Garza, and Gabriel Rush is truly wonderous. There was not a single scene in which their friendship felt faked. It felt as if I was watching a group of real life friends being caught up in a horrific situation.
But let’s talk about by far, the best aspect of Scary Stories – the horror elements. When I was younger, and I looked at Stephen Gammell’s illustrations in the aforementioned book of the same name, I was horrified by them. There was something so offputting and quite simply creepy about them that has given millions of kids nightmares for decades, mainly because of the ghastly monsters depicted. Those same monsters are just as gnarly here, with them being extremely faithfully adaptated to the big screen here.
While impressively crafted and handled well, the creatures and the horror scenes, were not necessarily scary, instead they were just somewhat creepy. I am confident that it is because I am older than this film’s target demographic, but I found the monsters to just be really fun to watch on screen. However, for younger viewers, they will haunt their dreams. The movie is certainly aimed towards those approximately ages twelve or thirteen, and if I was that age when watching this picture, I would most likely be genuinely scared.
When it comes to issues here, the screenplay can suffer a bit from rather slow pacing. The entire first act was honestly a bit of a drag to sit through. It features quite a bit of heavy character setup with not a whole lot going on to spark the interest of the viewer until later on. Even though there are some moments in the first act with some good humor, and really the entire movie has pretty good humor when it needs to, there could have been something exciting happening in the first portion of the film. It is not until about fourty or so minutes into the movie until our first real taste of horror is seen, and this is a picture with a running time of one hundred and eight minutes. It just felt as if the filmmakers did not quite use every second of time to their advantage.
Also, there are some times in which the overall plot can feel quite formulaic and something that we have seen done numerous times before. There are some moments in which it can be a bit predictable as to what will happen to a certain character, or an action that a character will make.
Finally, the characters for the most part were ones that I didn’t really care that much about at the end of the day. There was only really one character in the film that I cared about, at that was Colletti’s Stella Nicholls. Everybody else seemed rather disposable and they seemed inconsequential to the rest of the story unfortunately.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a fun and creepy horror flick, especially for younger viewers, even if it does suffer from pacing and familiarity issues.
Overall Grade: B
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references
Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Directed by: André Øvredal
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Running Time: 108 minutes