Produced by Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth) and based on Alvin Schwartz’s child-centric book series of the same name, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has big shoes to fill. The trailers promise a return to del Toro’s now-familiar creepy monstrosities, albeit with less carnage and a lot less bestiality, elements that may or may not be positives based on your tolerance levels for del Toro’s filmography.
While I found it to be a generally entertaining film (I did jump a couple of times in my seat), when the credits rolled I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated in the whole “scary” department, which is what the title promised. With a title called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I was expecting it to be much scarier, though I will acknowledge the original books were aimed at children and with that PG-13 rating maybe I expected too much.
Our story, so to speak, begins on a dark Halloween night in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania in 1968. Teenage friends Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie Hilderbrandt (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck Steinberg (Austin Zajur) pull off a particularly gross prank on Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) – the high school bully and jock – that leads to them meeting Ramon Morales (Michael Garza) as they try to escape the wrath of a vengeful Tommy and his baseball bat.
After evading Tommy, the three friends – with their new drifter buddy in town – decide to check out a local haunted house which belonged to the Bellows family, who, incidentally, helped found the town of Mill Valley. They discover a secret room and a book of scary stories that belonged to Sarah Bellows, a member of the Bellows clan rumored to have told scary stories through the wall of her secret room that eventually lead people to their deaths. After being discovered by Tommy he locks them in the secret room with Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). Incredibly, they’re released by an invisible force and escape the haunted house…but not without consequence.
All seems well until the reality of their situation becomes apparent: they’ve angered the spirit of Sarah Bellows who now adds new stories to her book of scary stories with words written in blood. Each story is focused on one of the teenagers who entered the house and, one by one, they fall victim as per the words of the book of scary stories. As their numbers dwindle the surviving teenagers must find a way to appease the angry spirit or fall victim to their literary fate written in blood.
The acting across the board is very solid. While there aren’t any stand out performances, this film has an ensemble of very talented young actors. Zoe Margaret Colletti does a great job portraying Stella, the social outcast obsessed with horror and, appropriately, is also an aspiring writer. Despite her interest in dark stories, she’s a loving daughter who helps look after her aging father Roy (Dean Norris). Colletti does a great job of portraying a teenage girl who deep down inside is suffering because her mother left and can’t leave this town because she doesn’t want to leave her father alone. Even though she is emotional and carrying the weight of self-imposed guilt, she’s also strong and determined to see things through to the end.
Michael Garza also delivers the goods as Ramon, a cool and confident stranger passing through town for reasons unknown. He is inadvertently pulled into the chaos Stella, Auggie and Chuck have created for themselves but can’t help being drawn to Stella who shares the same interests as him. Garza does a great job of embodying a young man who is the new strong member of the outcast group, but holds a secret behind the cool, calm and collected exterior he presents to the world.
Director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Trollhunter) has delivered a well-made film that, for the most part, looks and feels like it belongs within Guillermo del Toro’s universe. Only it’s just not that scary. I admit I jumped a few times and there is a really skin-crawling scene involving spiders, but overall this was pretty tame stuff. Technically, it looks great, with fantastic makeup monsters shambling about their appropriately gothic landscapes, with decent acting and spooky sounds.
Creepy for sure – just not scary. Given its PG-13 rating I can only assume some of the more grotesque elements were held back as this wasn’t meant to be a truly “adult” horror film. I suspect the chills and thrills we see were meant for teenagers looking for a safe “date movie”, and that’s exactly what they’ll get here. Good luck, kids.
I enjoyed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, even if it’s not particularly scary. Those expecting tons of Guillermo del Toro’s trademark ghoulishness will probably be satisfied (at least more satisfied than with the recent non-del Toro Hellboy reboot), but it’s a long, long way from his equally trademarked R-rated adult adventures. There are some skin-crawling scenes and plenty of jump-scare moments to be had, and given its kid-friendly rating and source material, this could be that rare film where cool parents could feel safe bringing the kiddos who’ve yet to delve into bloodier, more adult-oriented fare. And teens hoping to enjoy themselves. You know who you are.