With the success of the film adaptation of Goosebumps, it’s not that surprising to see another movie based on a children’s book series hitting theaters — though a little early for Halloween, but I’m guessing they wanted to avoid competing with part two of Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It — and yet Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is more in the ballpark of Muschietti’s movie than the more “family-friendly” Jack Black vehicle. This movie is a few degrees scarier than 2017’s Goosebumps, but when you have the likes of Guillermo del Toro writing and producing, the term “family-friendly” isn’t something that would leap readily to mind, and so with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark we get a PG-13 movie with some very genuine scares.
Guillermo del Toro and director Andre Ovredal manage to dance the line between a straight-up narrative horror story and that of an anthological one — such as Creepshow and Trick ‘r Treat — in this film, we focus on a group of teenagers and their encounters with a vengeful ghost, a spirit that manages to bring scary stories to life. Our cast of characters includes a young girl named Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), whose escape into writing scary stories gives her a unique perspective on the ghost, her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), who just want to have one final Halloween hurrah before they are considered too old for Trick or Treating, and then there is Ramon (Michael Garza), a drifter with a mysterious past who finds himself inexplicably mixed up with our group of “heroes” on this fateful Halloween night.
The plot is kicked into gear when the group are chased into a reputed haunted house by the local school bully, a particularly nasty piece of work named Tommy (Austin Abrams), and while in the house they come across the hidden room that once housed the legendary child murderer Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard). While exploring it, they find her book of scary stories, which, as legend has it, she would read to the children of the town — through the walls of her homemade prison — and that would be the last story these children would ever hear. It’s at this point that Stella makes the classic horror movie mistake of removing the book and unleashing Sarah’s vengeance on her and her friends. Soon enough, new stories appear within the pages of Sarah’s book, stories that write themselves — in what appears to be fresh blood — making the teenagers the targets of a fresh round of monsters that are unleashed on this sleepy town.
Being that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on a series of children’s book from the 80s, one shouldn’t expect much in the way of originality — the scene with a scarecrow coming to life to attack asshat Tommy was pretty standard stuff, and nothing we haven’t seen a dozen times before, but as predictable as it was, at least that segment was brief — but what makes this film work as well as it does is that the young cast of actors work very hard to convey pure and utter terror. Note: Having Tommy be the first victim was a mistake, this negates any tension as we as an audience couldn’t give two shits for this guy. Now, once Tommy is “missing,” the film moves into the expected research of the town’s mystery, with our teens visiting the library and local hospital to read up on Sarah Bellows, all while waiting for the next story to be written. The key element here is that with this particular book, “You don’t read the stories, the stories read you,” so our young protagonists find themselves facing their own greatest fears, which once again will get many viewers thinking of Pennywise from Stephen King’s It.
Where the film fails in the originality department it at least somewhat makes up for it with some genuinely tense and dread-filled scenes — though as this is still a horror film for younger viewers, there is no gore — and even if the murderous scarecrow seemed a little “old hat,” the other stories manage to bring to the screen some truly nasty creations, my particular favourite being “The Red Room,” where a horrifying phantom of a pale lady, from a recurring nightmare of Chuck’s, stalks the poor kid through the hellish hospital halls. It’s clear that Guillermo del Toro and Andre Ovredal know what they are doing, and they excel at creating an atmosphere of dread and despair, with each story trying to top the next, and the overall mystery behind the “Legend of Sarah Bellows” provides a nice twist or two, even if the film doesn’t quite stick the landing — the resolution being both a little too easy as well as unclear — and so I can heartily recommend Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a good entry point for younger viewers of horror, and even older audience members should enjoy a thrill or two from this flick.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Ovredal may not be a “Master of Horror” but with the likes of Guillermo del Toro backing his play, I expected a bit more, regardless of expectations the result was still a solid enough horror film for both young and older viewers, at least enough to get a few good scares and chills out of the proceedings.