André Øvredal’s adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a horror movie that loves horror movies. It does this not by dropping in loads of references (although it does front-load a bit by showing its protagonist’s love of the genre), but simply by showing the power of good horror stories that are well told. Øvredal skillfully walks the line between scarring and spooking his audience, giving them the tension and disturbing imagery that a PG-13 rating will allow while also providing the giddy thrills we enjoy from scary movies. Older audience members may demand something more disturbing, but younger viewers will find a terrific gateway to the horror genre.
Set in 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), her friends Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chucky (Austin Zajur), and their new pal Ramon (Michael Garza) are being chased by local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) when they end up in the haunted home of urban legend Sarah Bellows. Sarah was reportedly locked in the basement of the family manor and told scary stories to the children. Those children eventually disappeared, and Sarah died under mysterious circumstances. When Stella discovers a strange book, she learns that the book “reads” people, scrawling out their stories that tend to involve some kind of monster and grim conclusion for the protagonist. The problem is the protagonists are everyone who was in the house when Stella found the book, and they must find a way to stop Sarah’s ghostly wrath before their fates are sealed.
Scary Stories feels very much in the vein of 2015’s Goosebumps but for a slightly older audience. Dan and Kevin Hageman’s script skillfully weaves together an anthology of sorts, taking tales from Alvin Schwartz’ books like “Harold” and “The Red Spot” and turning them into the backbone of the movie where each scary story functions as a set piece of sorts hunting down the main characters. You then have the overarching mystery of what happened to Sarah and the surviving characters racing to solve it before they’re attacked by the next scary story.
Even though Scary Stories may not have the blood and gore that people typically expect from the horror genre, Øvredal excels at wringing the maximum amount of tension within the confines of his PG-13 rating. The film also doesn’t need to toy with a “hard” PG-13 or push the boundaries of what would be considered good taste. Scary Stories manages to be terrifying without leaning heavily into violence, an impressive feat that makes the film appropriate for younger viewers looking for a good scare but guilt-free for parents who aren’t ready to show their kids something like IT.
I also admire how the story takes advantage of its 1968 setting, acknowledging not just the impending election of Richard Nixon, but also how Vietnam looms over the characters and the racism faced by Ramon. It’s “Horror for Beginners”, but I like that Øvredal and co-writer/producer Guillermo del Toro know that the best horror stories are about more than just scaring the audience, but also about exploring the horrors of the real-world. Given its target audience, Scary Stories could have just focused on spooky monsters and called it a day, but I like that it takes the extra step to show that even though these characters are running from Sarah’s dark power, there are horrors in the world outside the supernatural.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a little slow to get started and it has a coda that feels like it was added to appease test audiences, but the heart of the film is terrific next step for budding horror fans. If Goosebumps provided a first step for kids, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is for adolescents. If I had seen this movie around age 11, it wouldn’t have let me go so easily, especially the “Harold” sequence. While it may not pack as much of a punch for adults who never read the books, Scary Stories does justice to its source material by burrowing under your skin with its nightmarish tales.