Review: SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

An exercise in middle-school horror best suited for the small screen.

It would be easy to call “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” a bridge for younger viewers to get into the horror genre. I get it, this film is rated PG-13, and sits in the no-man’s land between “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” and the recent “Annabelle” sequel. But despite its best efforts, “Scary Stories” isn’t scary enough to capture audience attention in the already crowded marketplace.

When aspiring writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her high school friends visit a decaying, creepy mansion on Halloween, they discover a hidden chamber. It’s the place where, many years ago, the Bellows family imprisoned Sarah, a mysterious child, who harbors a dark secret. While exploring Sarah’s dusty chamber, Stella finds an old, leather-bound manuscript that is rumored to contain some infamously scary stories. But within the book resides a demonic force that threatens the lives of anyone who comes into contact with it.

Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella examining the scary book.

Without having read the source material written by Alvin Schwartz, I can’t comment on how this adaptation compares to the popular compilations of middle-school horror stories that inspired it. I’ve seen some of the illustrations by Stephen Gammell that accompanied the text, and the film matches up with them well. It’s the narrative that is sporadic and lacks a cohesive spark. Even without consulting the books, viewers will be familiar with the genre beats: unleashed from the pages of Sarah’s anthology emerge a number of ghouls that terrorize and kill kids in gruesome ways.

A couple of these monsters are effective. In one scene that takes place in a mental institution, a creepy, woman-like being slowly follows the hapless Chuck (Austin Zajur), systemically boxing him in. Later on, a monster, made up of severed body-parts, runs amuck, but it’s more amusing than frightening.

The production design of the film matches the source illustrations.

“Scary Stories” starts well establishing the late 1960s setting. Given the retro success of “Stranger Things” and “It,” there’s a clear effort here to jump on the band wagon. Therefore, once again, a tight band of teens unite to combat a supernatural menace. And by using this nerdy group, the attempt is to pull together various scary stories. But here, the mythology at play isn’t very interesting. The perfunctory investigation they engage in feels rushed and conveniently pushes the plot forward. The kids never put together a coherent plan of attack in order to fight back. The random, scattershot approach is frustrating.

But there is a place for a bridge horror film that introduces the genre to younger viewers. However, these days our youngest audience members are cinematically mature beyond their years. The goofy charm that helped transcend a film like “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” doesn’t transfer to “Scary Stories.” Where “Clock” caught everyone up in the adventure as its heroes took on evil, “Scary Stories” merely acquaints us with the bad guys, only cursorily getting to the solution. When it ends, it hints at a sequel where the real adventure awaits.

Stella and Ramón (Michael Garza) discover a hidden chamber.

It’s that ending that makes a strong case for serialization on television or one of the streaming platforms. Because the source is three volumes of stories, the very title containing this concept, why wouldn’t it have made more sense to launch this as a series? Maybe this is where it’s headed, because I suspect that a theatrical sequel is unlikely.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is produced by Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, who gave us the wonderful “Trollhunter” back in 2010. And the quality of the production can’t be questioned. It looks great.

Incomplete without a sequel and lacking in the magic that made “Stranger Things” such a success, “Scary Stories” feels very much like a well-made copy-cat searching for an audience.

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