In the late 1960s, a group of teens finds a book that brings their nightmares to life in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on the book series of the same name.
30-second review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has the creature design that made producer Guillermo Del Toro‘s career such a success. Each one is nightmarish in their own right and are the real stars of the movie. It also helps that director André Øvredal knows how to direct a horror sequence filled with dread and tension.
However, the movie spends way too much time unnecessarily fleshing out the period and its characters. A little character development never hurt anybody, but when it’s at the expense of the real goal of your movie — the scares — then you have a problem. The stories were brought to life with the same energy that made the book series they’re based on so iconic. The movie just needed a better frame for them.
Where to watch Scary Stories to Play in the Dark: Now playing in theaters.
Full review below 👇
There’s something so comfortable about the early scenes in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Beginning on Halloween in 1968 in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, the movie is quick to set a spooky atmosphere as the town prepares for the night. But in that atmosphere is the feeling of Halloween season. The same feeling that movies like Hocus Pocus or The Nightmare Before Christmas give off. You can almost feel the crisp fall air. Breathe that calm in. It doesn’t last long.
We meet three friends — horror aficionado Stella (Zoe Colletti), buttoned-up rule follower Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and the clown of the group Chuck (Austin Zajur) — getting ready for Halloween night. They hatch a plan to get revenge on school bully Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) that works but sets Tommy’s sights on revenge.
The trio runs to a drive-in playing Night of the Living Dead and takes refuge in the car of a mysterious drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza). To thank him for saving them, they take him to a house where they tell him about the local legend Sarah Bellows. The Bellows family, who founded the town and owned the town’s mill, locked Sarah away in a secret room, neglecting her. There, she spent her days spinning up scary stories (to tell in the dark) filled with ghouls and monsters.
After another encounter with Tommy, the four teens, along with Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) leave the house. However, Stella makes the fatal mistake most horror movie characters make — she takes Sarah’s book of scary stories with her. This decision awakens Sarah’s spirit, who in turn sends a barrage of nightmarish creatures to kill each of the teens one by one — writing their fate into the book (in blood). Turning into Final Destination with Guillermo Del Toro-esque monsters — he also produced the film — Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is almost exactly what you hope it would be, but gets distracted.
There is so much good to be found in the movie. First of all, the creature designs — directly inspired by Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations for the book series — are appropriately grotesque and disturbing. Even just an image of some of them is enough to inspire chills — particularly the scarecrow Harold and the Jangly Man. Plus, director André Øvredal proves yet again after his chilling English-language debut The Autopsy of Jane Doe that he knows how to direct a terrifying and tense horror setpiece.
However, like that movie, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark gets so caught up in its plot that the scares end up feeling like an afterthought and lose their effectiveness. Each of the stories that are adapted in the movie has enough creeps on their own to work for a moment, but screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman try so hard to flesh out the world and characters that they lose sight of the actual goal of the movie — to be scary.
The movie spends a lot of time establishing itself in the time period — there are mentions of the impending presidential election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphry and the Vietnam War — and fleshing out the characters. However, neither of those things add anything to the movie. Hearing about Stella’s mother leaving or Ramón’s secret past are just distractions, even if Colletti and Garza do well with the material.
I almost wish that the movie just kept the anthology nature of the short stories and had each of them as standalone chapters. At least then we’d have consistent scares throughout to latch onto instead of having filler padding the running time. That’s not to say the movie is unentertaining. It has its moments. Maybe it’ll more effective as a Halloween movie to play in the background rather than a horror to appreciate.