That book that freaked you out as a kid is now a movie that probably won’t freak you out as an adult—but is more than entertaining enough to make up for its lack of scares.
Of course, if you’re devilish, you’ll take your kids to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—they may have a more visceral reaction.
Co-written by Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal (director of the excellent Trollhunter and the slightly overrated but still good The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is handed a challenging mission: how do you make a PG-13 horror movie that is based on a children’s book, but not really for children?
The movie must toe the line (where’s my toe?) between being a legitimate horror movie—i.e. not Goosebumps, which opted to cater exclusively to children—and not being a completely unnerving experience for young-ish moviegoers. The end result, presumably purposefully, is a horror movie on training wheels, a film that won’t appeal to horror purists but has enough frightening material to hook those less experienced with how horror movies work.
If you go in accepting that, you’ll find Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to be quite fun.
While Øvredal holds back on the gore and anything overtly intense or offensive, he still manages to build a moderate level of suspense. He knows when to drop the music and let do silence and the audience’s overactive imaginations do the work. The monsters—from a ghoulish scarecrow to the Jangly Man to my personal favorite, the Pale Lady—are impressively frightening, grounded more or less by practical effects and a willingness to be a bit more disturbing than what you’d expect from a horror movie allegedly made for children.
A little less impressive is Sarah Bellows, the central antagonist who is used to piece the disparate “stories” together in a larger plot. The evil ghost who was wronged in a past life is one of the most overused tropes in horror movies, and the entirety of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does follow the extremely predictable “let’s do research to find out who the ghost really is and what happened to her” arc, ultimately culminating in a climax you’ve seen a dozen times before.
Remember, it’s a horror movie on training wheels.
The cast hold their own given the material, but don’t exactly elevate it. Zoe Margaret Colletti certainly tries her hardest and Austin Zajur, despite overacting, is the most entertaining of the bunch. Michael Garza unfortunately falls a bit flat; Øvredal doesn’t quite know what to do with his character.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is by no means original horror, but as a real-life incarnation of a creepy kid’s book, it is a satisfyingly fun experience that manages to maintain a decent level of suspense all things considered.
The movie won’t freak you out, but it’ll freak your kids out, so take them to it and deal with the consequences later.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.