Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a new monster horror flick based on a series of creepy campfire stories by Alvin Schwartz which were published in three separate collections during the 1980’s and early 90’s. It was directed André Øvredal from a screenplay set by Dan and Kevin Hageman as well as Guillermo Del Toro, and stars Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella Nicholls, a teenage girl living with her father after her mother left them some time ago. Set during October of 1968, the film follows Stella and a few of her other teenage friends (as well as adversaries) as they attempt to survive after breaking into a boarded up house on the edge of town and stealing a book written by a girl who supposedly died there after being locked up by her parents for seemingly exhibiting symptoms of paranoid insanity. The book, which is believed to have been written in blood, becomes sentient, writing its own stories on the remaining empty pages after being taken. But these aren’t just new stories; these stories come true as they’re read, and their victims are spelled out in the names the book writes. As the movie plays out, it’s up to each of the kids to endure their own would-be demises, either outsmarting or outrunning whatever is coming after them, until either the horror is done and the book is put back, or the last page is filled with a final name. The movie also stars Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, and Austin Abrams.
PG-13 horror is a tough sell for today’s market without Conjuring-like franchise tie to hype it up. Much of the time it’s only done to make a quick buck for the studio, and the lack of quality in the filmmaking, performances, writing, cinematography, editing, and sound design more than betrays that trap of profitability. Movies like It: Chapter One and even the more recent Halloween (2018) attract larger crowds, as the R rating allows the films to go for more horrifying images, more gore, deeper terror, etc, so making an original horror film in a PG-13 vein (while not impossible) is almost always difficult to make as a quality film in its own right, barring a genius idea like Lights Out or A Quiet Place. Sure, the horror genre has been experiencing a back-half-of-the-decade renaissance lately, but it’s still a testy ocean to sail out on. So, as this movie’s marketing campaign was ramping up, I was unsure of whether I should be dreading or anticipating its release. Everything in me said “this would be worth watching at least once,” but my mind always went back to the term “visionary director” as a marketing ploy to get basically anyone in your target demographic to see your movie, because hey, who’s gonna bother to look up what else they directed if it’s not listed in the trailers themselves? Fortunately, though I’ve not seen anything else he’s done thus far, Øvredal has a reputation as a promising filmmaker, and has collaborated with Guillermo Del Toro before, so my skepticism, though remaining in a smaller part, began to recede. And while I don’t know if I’d consider Scary Stories an unmitigated horror classic, it’s well-done enough that that recession seems to have been well-founded.
Let me make something clear right up front: I didn’t consider Scary Stories to be particularly scary in its own right. My favorite genre of horror tends to be more informed by atmosphere think The Witch and Hereditary) than by production or monster design, but while I wouldn’t describe this movie as particularly “scary” to me, it more than fits right at home with the monster sub-genre that it’s meant to be a part of, as well as with other Del Toro period offerings like 2015’s severely underappreciated Crimson Peak. This is a genuinely solid PG-13 horror effort that put all its feet forward (sans toes) in all the right places for exactly where it needs to go, and while it doesn’t do any more than that, the simple, stripped-down nature of the story telling allows for some wonderfully creative flourishes in the story sequences that feature the monsters, one in particular with lots of red lighting that actually had me gripping my seat a little.
But director André Øvredal doesn’t only put the effort in on the scare sequences. The entire film is shot with a very distinct period style, reminiscent of other horror classics like the 1978 Halloween, largely composed of wide shots that emphasize the characters’ isolation further and further as more of them are picked off one by one. It most likely won’t be winning any awards for cinematography, but it is nice when we get to see a horror film like this where at least most of the shots seem deliberately staged to communicate something to the audience, rather than just having something in the frame because it’s a movie and you have to have something there.
One of the elements of the original Scary Stories books that former readers remember the most was the use of terrifying, often vaguely demonic artwork detailing what the monsters looked like on the pages without text, and if there’s one thing that this movie succeeds at above all else, it’s the creature design. Like I mentioned, none of them were particularly scary for me to look at, but the design of the creatures themselves were fascinating. I have no idea if they mainly used VFX or practical makeup work to create the creatures, but knowing Del Toro’s penchant for practicality, and knowing he worked very closely on this movie with Øvredal, I’d bet on the latter for about 80% of the film’s runtime.
The performances are also pretty excellent all around. Not every character gets as much development as they probably could have through the film, but given that it’s a slasher flick by way of supernatural monsters, as well as the fact that there are so many principle players, I’d say it’s at least half-forgivable that we don’t really get to explore the past of the single cop with any speaking lines in the entire movie. We know enough about him and the other characters to understand why he won’t help them and why they don’t want to go to him at first as the plot progresses, and that’s enough for me to let that element of it go without too much fuss. Zoe Margaret Colletti and Gabriel Rush, in particular, seem to have the most development out of all the kids in the group, and they both pull off their roles quite well, especially in Rush’s case as the unofficial comedic relief of the group whose monster sequence will simultaneously disgust you and make you laugh by how he reacts to it. If there are flaws in development, Colletti’s character is meant to be given an arc where she lets go of feeling responsible for her mom’s departure from the family, but it barely takes up five minutes of the movie in total, so it kinda feels like an afterthought. Michael Garza also seems largely inconsequential to the plot apart from his own monster sequence, and as important of a character as they try to frame him to be, and as much as they set him up to be, he doesn’t actually get to be much of a character all his own until about halfway through, and even that only lasts for about 20 minutes.
In the end, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t a particularly great entry into the horror genre, but it is a very solid, well-crafted good entry, and that’s more than most PG-13 horror films can say. The writing and direction may just lack the goods to carry it to the Oscar glory of Get Out or the atmospheric dread of things like The Witch or Hereditary, but it’s competently put together enough that it’ll scare the teenagers it’s probably meant for, and it’s not annoying to watch by any stretch. The performances are good, the monsters are really good, and the whole thing ends up more than making a place for itself in the slasher genre, a genre where all too often, we don’t get movies like this one.
I’m giving “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” an 8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.