Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

“You let a ghost story get into your heads.”

It’s hard to not appreciate Alvin Schwartz’s collection of short horror stories tailored to terrify school kids checking out library books around the world; the tricks and the treats proved to be effective decades ago and work just as well now. I remember sitting in a neighbor’s tree house as a kid, jumpier and more impressionable. Surrounded by darkness and tall trees to the North, a little flashlight and the book passed around as people took turns trying to spook others in voices while they read. That must’ve been no less than 17 years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. So you might be able to imagine how it feels to sit through Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, watching a vivid memory brought to life in fantastic fashion; it’s old and new all at once. PG-13 horror doesn’t get much better this.

Having said that, if there’s anything to be disappointed by when it comes to Scary Stories – and there’s really not much – I might only say that the teenage characters are rather forgettable. Firstly, you should know that the film opens during the brisk Autumn of 1968’s Halloween. What the characters do should come as no surprise either; for all of the alchemy achieved in the end product, this portion’s potion is surprisingly hand-me-down in the build. And so we watch a small group of outcasts try to get even with the town bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), a typical jock always dressed in his letterman jacket and blue jeans, already on the path towards becoming a mean drunk and an abusive dad down the line. Where does their confrontation take place? Well, at a drive-in, and then in the small town’s abandoned mansion. Of course. I mean, where else would it occur on All Hallow’s Eve?

While there, the reticent outsider Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) finds a blank book, taking it from the home and unknowingly unleashing terror onto those who were present that night. Tommy goes missing and next up are Stella’s few friends. The doubting Thomas named Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is made a temporary believer, and the goofy Chuck (Austin Zajur) has a nightmare become a hellish reality. There’s also Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a vain beauty whose looks come back to bite her, as well as Ramón (Michael Garza), a young man with eyes for Stella and who is racially profiled by the blue-collar, white-picket fence community. That the film intentionally shows clips of Nixon’s eventual Presidential win throughout is important, grounding us in a time and a place where fear was used to divide the nation, and in that way Scary Stories manages to feel frighteningly current yet appropriately pessimistic in its use of nostalgia.

What I found most impressive was the way director André Øvredal and his screenwriters were able to create a cohesive world full of believable and tangible fear, expertly using the many monsters in this story (which is undoubtedly a credit to producer Guillermo del Toro) to introduce us to foreboding, unforgettable images without having to resort to blood and guts. This picture is smarter than that, more intellectual, and works as a metaphor – or perhaps even a religious parable – for the grave cost of a sin and the power of true reconciliation. You can think about it long and hard if you want to, or you can just as easily absorb the movie as a delightful piece of campy fireside horror. There’s a little something for everyone who watches Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

“Stories can teach us to care.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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