Making a horror movie that entertains and scares younger audiences without completely traumatizing them can be a daunting task. Director André Øvredal’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” released Aug. 9, manages that tricky balance well, placing an endearing adolescent cast into a chilling story that pushes the boundaries of a PG-13 rating.
The film is based on a three-part series of youth horror story collections of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz and originally paired with now-infamous illustrations by Stephen Gammell. The script wisely abandons the anthology style of the books for a cleverly structured narrative that links some of the books’ most iconic stories together — “Harold,” “The Big Toe” and “The Haunted House,” to name a few.
On Halloween 1968, Stella Nichols (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her loyal friends Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) meet drifter Ramón Morales (Michael Garza) after hiding in his car at the drive-in theater to evade some local bullies.
The chase pauses just long enough for Stella and Ramón to start flirting while the group drives to the haunted house on the edge of town, where they’re cornered by the bullies. Legend has it the house belonged to the Bellows, a rich family whose paper mill put the small town of Mill Valley on the map.
The locals avoid the house because of Sarah Bellows, the eccentric youngest member of the Bellows family and an alleged child murderer. Before Sarah’s suicide, her family kept her locked away in her room, where she filled books with horror stories.
At night, local kids would stand outside the house near her room and listen as she read stories to them through the wall. What the kids didn’t know was that Sarah’s stories all starred real people, and they all came true.
The teens mount an escape, but not before Stella steals one of Sarah’s story books — and soon finds out that Sarah might have died, but her stories were still being written.
The narrative works from an adaptation standpoint — fans of the books will recognize the stories the heroes find themselves written into — but it also limits the film.
The most significant problem with the narrative structure is the pacing — the horror elements and character development are squished in between exposition and watching the kids travel from point A to point B.
The four main characters are compelling enough, but they’re lacking depth. Interesting character traits, like Stella’s absent mother or Ramón’s military brother are introduced, then forgotten when the plot has to advance. This is a shame, since the main cast has four capable young actors, with Colletti and Zajur standing out from the rest.
The lack of character development is understandable — “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a 111 minute-long movie that’s packed to the brim — but would be easier to forgive if more time was spent on the kids’ encounters with Sarah’s stories.
Instead, each of the stories and characters adapted from the books fly by in just a few minutes, given faithful-but-fleeting treatments.
In an era where movies like “Midsommar” and “It Comes at Night” leave their supernatural elements unexplained and even debatable in nature, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” ultimately deserves credit for giving several monsters significant roles — even if it’s just a little less than one might hope.
The film may not spend much time with the books’ classic stories, but its visual aesthetic is its biggest asset. Most of the film’s creatures — including the Pale Lady and Harold the Scarecrow — are modeled directly from Gammell’s illustrations, to remarkable effect.
Gammell’s use of shading, distortion of the human body and morbid sense of humor in the books’ illustrations resulted in monsters that were scary enough on paper, where they couldn’t sway ever-so-slightly with the wind or slowly shuffle down a dimly-lit corridor.
Øvredal leans into this, creating effective horror by mixing silent pauses and well-timed jump scares with the truly gruesome creature designs. At times it borders on too much for younger viewers, but never crosses that line — it’s legitimately frightening while showing just enough restraint for its audience.
Everything about “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is handled with care by Øvredal and his crew. The film addresses the social climate of its 1960s setting, makes viewers care about its characters, despite the poor pacing, and achieves a darker tone than most movies considered appropriate for kids.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” rated PG-13, is playing in theaters nationwide.