Stories have power. For nearly 40 years, the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell has captured the hearts and nightmares of children everywhere. The unnerving artwork and stories within weren’t afraid to get dark, and they didn’t dumb down the horror for its young readers. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has distilled the books down to its core essence to spin a spooky tale for a new generation of budding horror fans, while still offering up enough nostalgia for the fans who grew up on the series.
Set in 1968, Stella (Zoe Colletti) is a social outcast. Being a horror-obsessed aspiring writer would be enough to deem her unfit for the popular crowd as it is, but her mother left her and her father, Roy (Dean Norris), stirring up the town rumor mill in the process. The only friends she has are Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), social outcasts themselves who have plotted a prank to get back at high school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) on Halloween night. When it goes a little too well, the trio find themselves hiding out in a drive-in theater, where they cross paths with newcomer Ramón (Michael Garza). Halloween isn’t Halloween without something scary, so the new foursome head to a true haunted house on the outskirts of town. They’re frightened away, but not before Stella finds a book full of scary stories—one that has a tendency to write additional stories on its own in red “ink” that have a weird way of coming true.
From the opening dialogue, seasoned horror fans will likely immediately grasp the motive and solution to this particular supernatural problem. The central story from which screenwriters Dan & Kevin Hageman and Guillermo del Toro have woven the different creepy creations from is a familiar one. It’s a solid base that means Scary Stories is less anthology and more Pandora’s Box style horror that unleashes one terrifying nightmare after another upon these kids. Director André Øvredal brings Gammell’s unnerving illustrations to life with familiar book entities like Harold the Scarecrow, the Pale Lady, or the Big Toe, but it’s the Jangly Man that presents the biggest thrills and chills.
Øvredal tailors the tension and scares for the target demographic, meaning that while the younger crowd will be creeped out, older viewers likely won’t find the horror quite as effective. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t stakes, though, and the film doesn’t shy away from keeping its characters accountable for their actions. It’s unafraid to get pretty dark for its intended audience. When so many young adult movies have a magic reset or undo button, that Scary Stories doesn’t opt for an easy way out is refreshing.
At a near two-hour runtime, the pacing can sometimes feel sluggish, especially when filled with dialogue that feels appropriately childish. Luckily, Colletti makes for a compelling lead, and the residual trauma of being abandoned by her mother provides a strong emotional backbone. For the grownups, the 1968 setting gives an allegorical layer to dissect, with the looming presidential election of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War playing a role in character and setting development. There’s also plenty of Easter eggs to glean for fans of the book series.
Overall, Scary Stories offers up a strong entry in gateway horror destined to become a childhood favorite for the budding horror fan. The popular book series is well-represented in both the narrative and the haunting visuals, and it's tethered by a fantastic lead with an endearing emotional journey. It’s not perfect, and its tried-and-true formula will feel overly familiar for the horror veteran. But this isn’t for them. This is for a new generation of horror fans, for the young at heart or those nostalgic for the books. For the parents who are given enough context and insightful layers to appreciate while they watch alongside their kids. Scary Stories delivers up Halloween fun with enough chills and memorable monsters to solidify itself as a worthy gateway horror film to revisit for years to come.
Movie Score: 3.5/5