FILM REVIEW – SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. With Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Gil Bellows. Written by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman. Directed by André Øvredal. Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references. 102 minutes.
Things that go harrumph in the night
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is best understood as an attempt to launch a new horror movie franchise. Based on a series of books geared to younger readers in the 1980s, they featured stories that were creepy without crossing over into “adult” material. Author Alvin Schwartz was the Stephen King or Clive Barker of the middle school set.
Now with Guillermo del Toro as one of the producers and Norwegian horror director André Øvredal at the helm, “Scary Stories” reaches the screen. Instead of doing it as a series of unrelated short stories, the movie creates an overarching plot involving a book of horrific stories that come true for the characters. With many more stories available and the fate of at least two of the characters unresolved at film’s end, the people involved are clearly planning on sequels, although that will be determined by how this one fares.
The story is set in 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a bit of a misfit at her high school, as a horror fan and aspiring writer. On Halloween she and her only friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), plan one last time of trick-or-treating, more specifically to pull a nasty prank on the school bully (Austin Abrams). This eventually lands them at the town’s haunted house, where a girl locked up by her family is said to have killed herself many years earlier. Joined by Ramon (Michael Garza), a mysterious stranger passing through town, they explore the house and Stella finds a handwritten book of stories by the dead girl.
There’s not much new here for older horror fans, although the visual design – apparently inspired by the artwork by Stephen Gammell in the original books – is certainly imaginative. Without giving away who survives, the third act has two of the teens fighting off horrors from different stories. The 1968 setting allows for references to the 1968 election of Richard Nixon as President, which may be attempts to inject some political commentary about the current officeholder.
The young cast handles the material well, considering that their key moments involve running or screaming or running and screaming. Along for the ride are two veteran performers, Dean Norris as Stella’s dad and Gil Bellows as the town sheriff. Suffice to say you’re more likely to remember the creatures in the film rather than any of the performances.
Although the book series remains popular, the road is littered with would-be movie franchises that never got beyond the first episode, despite the relative success of the source material. The books come from an era that’s before the internet, before streaming, and just as VCRs were being brought into people’s homes. We’ll find out whether “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” is scary enough for today’s teens, or just another camper lost in the woods.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.