‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ Provides Well-Crafted Scares for Teens

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a teen horror that features all the visual craft of a talented director and a masterful producer. There can be no denying the cinematic technique, attention to detail and expensive lighting. Some moments will make you jump in the same way a carnival ride would do. It’s a complete boo fest, based on the beloved series of books by Alvin Schwartz which are essentially gory, hilarious little folk romps for kids to chortle and shiver to. Director André Øvredal, a master of the macabre, and Oscar-winning director (here producer) Guillermo del Toro clearly love the premise behind this material. But they take out the humor and go for a full-on scream fest instead.

It’s 1968 in a small American town draped in autumnal colors. As in every American neighborhood about to be assaulted by dark forces there is a group of friends. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush). On Halloween they go out to snag some candy and play a prank on the local jock bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), who happens to be dating Chuck’s sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn). When their prank goes badly the three end up hiding in the car of a stranger, Ramon (Michael Garza), who then follows the gang into an old abandoned house. Turns out the place once belonged to the wealthy Bellow family. Their daughter Sarah apparently hid some deep, dark secrets which she channeled into a series of scary stories the kids find in original manuscript form, written in blood of course. Once Stella takes the book home and opens it new stories begin to write themselves. Each tale is based on a nightmare, fear or story connected to the friends’ lives. Sarah Bellow is out for revenge.

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” isn’t necessarily an adaptation. The original Schwartz books are anthologies, with some stories lasting no more than a page. Øvredal and writers Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman and Del Toro take the concepts of the gruesome, morbidly funny tales and spread them around a rehashed horror plot. The concept of angry ghosts and children exposing family secrets has been Del Toro’s go-to device for years, going back to his masterful 2001 “The Devil’s Backbone” and less impressive credits as a producer like 2013’s “Mama.” This new film fuses Del Toro’s obsessions with the visual style of Øvredal. First gaining real attention in 2010 with his strange yet memorable “Troll Hunter,” Øvredal has quickly built a reputation as a director of macabre sensibilities. His last film, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” was a brilliantly nasty vehicle of pure tension where two coroners examining a body are trapped in their morgue when the further they cut into the corpse, the more supernatural threats emerge. Above all Øvredal is a great visual stylist and that is what stands out best in “Scary Stories.”

Scored to ominously wicked 60s hits like Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” (which is then covered by Lana Del Rey in the end credits), Øvredal evokes small town America circa 1968 the way “Stranger Things” conjures the 80s. Everything is picturesque, with vintage (for us) cars cruising down the streets and lacking cell phones the kids communicate with portable radios. Campaign posters for Richard Nixon litter city walls and the Vietnam War is a hot topic of discussion. The main characters are cousins or siblings of countless other nostalgia personas. The jocks are brutes and mean, Auggie stares at Ruth which unsettles Chuck. Ramon is not only a stranger but Latino, which prompts Chuck to ask if he has a switchblade as they try to evade the snarling Tommy. When Stella opens Sarah Bellows’ book everyone is individually assaulted by a scare, and like the alien critters from the Upside Down in “Stranger Things,” it’s up to these kids to save the town. 

The famous source material is lighthearted in a campfire ghost story sort of way. But here famous creatures and ghouls from the books are turned into screeching, pounding tools for jump scares. Because the two main filmmakers involved have proven to be masters of makeup and other trickery, a lot of it looks great. Someone will munch on stew from a pot in the fridge and discover it’s a toe and other snacks like eyeballs, a girl’s school play is ruined when a cyst on her cheek grows and bursts, releasing hundreds of spiders, a jock gets his just desserts when a scarecrow devours him late at night in a corn field. There’s a nearly virtuoso scene involving Chuck running through endless, red-lit hallways attempting to escape a large, pale woman fans will recognize from the story “The Dream.” In technical terms its Øvredal at his best with cinematographer Roman Osin, who also shot “Autopsy of Jane Doe.” The halls seem to close in as Chuck can’t escape this most haunting apparition that advances slowly towards him (and us). Someone else will be dragged into the ether by a howling corpse and leave drag marks on the floor. In these scenes the script peppers the dialogue with references to the books, but these are not the original stories, just the ghoulish apparitions from those stories transferred into this plot. A character might utter a line from the books, but this is the equivalent of taking “Dr. Seuss” characters and tossing them into a “Fast and the Furious” movie.

Once Stella finds out what Sarah Bellows was accused of way back when women wore corsets and men top hats, and why she wants revenge, the whole movie turns into pure autopilot. You can guess someone has to promise Sarah her name will be cleared if she would only stop horrific apparitions from assaulting these specific kids, like the gruesome, dismembered walking corpse that chases after Ramon. Credit should be given to the script for attempting to give the story more depth when it can, like using Ramon as a symbol for the minority presence in a small town. The jocks call him “wetback” and graffiti the term on his car. The camera has a habit of panning over to shots of Nixon on TV, with the obvious suggestion about what a real monster looks like. It’s no coincidence that the week this film is released, del Toro was given his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and used the opportunity to speak out against racism. In that sense “Scary Stories” attempts a little more meaning than something like “Annabelle.”

The technical merit of “Scary Stories” is exceptional, the makeup is beyond impressive, the cinematography has great atmosphere. But it is a bit of a shallow script. There’s little real humor or the spirit of something originally intended to introduce young readers to the morbid pleasures of chuckling at missing toes. Instead it’s all about just making you jump and scream. Though that will be enough for the majority of its youthful audience as del Toro and Øvredal have done much better than just going “boo!”

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” opens Aug. 9 in theaters nationwide.