By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza and Austin Zajur
Directed by André Øvredal
Written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman
Part of the appeal of Alvin Schwartz’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is how swift and punchy the tales are; the situations are set up quick and neat and proceed directly to their horrible conclusions. And then, of course, there are Stephen Gammell’s wonderfully horrible illustrations that have burned themselves into a few generations of young psyches. The creators of the SCARY STORIES movie have found the right way to incorporate these little slices of death and terror into an overarching narrative, while honoring Gammell’s images and, though the material is kid-centric, incorporating a few adult themes as well.
It’s Halloween 1968 in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, and the time and place aren’t chosen randomly: The locally produced NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is at the town drive-in, the country is embroiled in Vietnam and the Election Day that will bring Richard Nixon to the White House will follow shortly. The country is in the midst of losing its innocence, an experience mirrored in what a quartet of teenagers are about to go through. Stella (Zoe Colletti) is a girl with a bedroom full of monster posters who ventures with fellow outcasts Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) not to trick or treat, but to pull a retaliatory prank on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). Tommy doesn’t take kindly to this, and the resulting chase makes a stop at the aforementioned drive-in and then takes the group to the local haunted house. They’re joined by Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) and Ramon (Michael Garza), an older teen passing through town who has already received the suspicious hostility of police chief Turner (Gil Bellows).
The script by Dan and Kevin Hageman, from a screen story conjured up by producer Guillermo del Toro and the COLLECTOR/SAW sequels team of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, does a very efficient job of establishing the players and getting the story in motion. Director André Øvredal, who triumphed with found footage in TROLL HUNTER and stark, claustrophobic fright in THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, pursues another genre avenue here and, with cinematographer Roman Osin, suffuses the film in rich suburban-Halloween atmosphere. From its opening strains, Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich’s music evokes another bygone era—the ’80s, and its cinematic sagas of adventurous youth getting into fantastical trouble. These particular young actors, under Øvredal’s direction, are sympathetic and occasionally quite funny while eschewing the annoying/obnoxious tics of the kids in some other movies of this type. They feel genuine, not like movie children—particularly Colletti, who’s a real find as the bright, artistically ambitious Stella.
She’s prone to writing horror stories, and thus leaves that spooky dwelling with an old volume of scary writings discovered in a back room. (Ruth, meanwhile, comes away with a spider bite on her cheek. Uh-oh…) What Stella discovers is that new tales are writing themselves in red ink (or is it??), describing horrible fates for those around her that come true in real life. Fans of the stories will smile in recognition as the ghastly incidents from Schwartz’s books are set up, and they pay off in sequences staged and shot by Øvredal for maximum creep power. Keeping things PG-13 for the target audience, the filmmakers (including the Spectral Motion team, who created the terrific creature effects) nonetheless give good gross-out, particularly where the titular appendage in “The Big Toe” winds up.
As Stella and her pals try to determine exactly what’s going on and how to put a stop to it, SCARY STORIES’ narrative develops in standard supernatural-chiller ways, from a history-seeking trip to an ominous hospital to a visit with an elderly woman holding the key to the mystery. It’s the details of character and situation that set SCARY STORIES apart, and the way in which they tie in to the specific setting, most notably when Ramon’s personal secret is revealed. That’s a story turn that will be most appreciated by grown-up viewers, who will find more than enough eerie style and engagement with the youthful protagonists to keep them entertained. Like the original books, however, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK will resonate strongest with tween and teen audiences, who will find in it frights that are relatable and have real consequences while not pushed gratuitously far, and the inspiration to seek out more or even write scary stories of their own.