Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is comprised of three collections of short horror stories written for children by Alvin Schwartz; the first book was published in 1981. Schwartz wrote original or curated well-known tales that ranged from traditional ghost stories and folklore to urban legends. Many a young reader came across these books at their school libraries and would remember them best for Stephen Gammell’s truly disturbing but incredibly powerful illustrations.
In 2011, HarperCollins featured tame new art by Brett Helquist (Lemony Snicket), resulting in a good deal of discussion as the original pictures were very much part of the iconography. It should also be noted that the American Library Association listed the works as the most challenged series of books from the 1990s and has continued to stir controversy for its violence and macabre topics.
Now these stories have been brought to the big screen in an intriguing film. This is not a horror anthology, a form that became popular in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s. Instead, the stories are interwoven into a high-stakes plot that deals with a haunted tome where, “You don’t read the book; the book reads you.”
It is Halloween 1968 and a trio of high school students along with a mysterious young man end up in a supposedly haunted house. Here, they unleash the spirit of Sarah Bellows, a girl who was suspected of murdering children before the turn of the century. At the heart of the legend is her book of “Scary Stories.” In a traditional trope (think Candyman, Bloody Mary), it was rumored that she could be summoned by asking her to tell you a story — the last story you will ever read. This setup puts the group on a path whereby six of the tales from the book come to life, placing them in the midst of the stories.
The film is well-paced and well-acted. There are a few jump-out scares and just a handful of mildly gross moments; the latter are handled stylishly and never cross the line.
For the most part, “Scary Stories” centers on the characters in action and their search for the truth about Sarah and her family. Her past and the family’s history are gradually revealed and, ultimately, it is a morality tale where the monster is perhaps more sinned against than sinning. It is no coincidence that the film is played out during the height of the Vietnam War and, specifically, the final days of the 1968 election where the country would eventually experience a different kind of evil in the figure of Richard Nixon.
The cast is uniformly strong, with Zoe Colletti’s Stella being the driving force. She is a cross between the traditional scream queen and the self-actualized teenager we have come to expect in horror films.
Colletti is well-supported by Michael Garza as Ramón, the stranger with an important and surprising secret. The sidekicks, Auggie and Chuck, played by Gabriel Rush and August Zajur, respectively, are funny but grounded. It is this quartet that is central to the film. Unlike most latter-day horror and slasher films, this one centers on real friendship and, therefore, we are able to invest in their fates. In a supporting role, Dean Norris is particularly sensitive as Stella’s single father.
The monsters, as would be expected given the source, are one-dimensional. This is intentional and appropriate as they are rooted childhood scares and fears — those terrors associated with the campfire and what lies underneath the bed. There are only occasional nods to the Gammell visuals, and the film would have perhaps been more frightening if these had been more prevalent.
Smartly directed by André Øvredal, the screenplay was adapted by Dan and Kevin Hageman, from a screen story by producer Guillermo del Toro, as well as by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. They have done their work well, finding a nice balance between humor and horror. Rated PG-13, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a clever outing, making a welcome addition to the genre.