'Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark' Review: Stranger Stories Have Been Told, But Few As Effortlessly Creepy

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a title a simple as it is effective — it warns of the unknown lurking in the dark while crooking a finger to invite you in. "Listen, at your own risk," Alvin Schwartz's collection of scary stories for children seems to say, welcoming only the most daring of thrill-seekers. But more than just a mere compilation of scary campfire stories, Schwartz's three-book collection of urban myths and legends has transcended the oral histories of its stories to become a cultural giant in its own right. Stephen Gammell's drawings grotesque and ghostly illustrations helped cement the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, published between 1981 and 1991, as staples of many a horror lover's childhood.André Øvredal's feature film adaptation of Schwartz's beloved children's books is heavily inspired by the Gammell's macabre drawings, so unnervingly so that one could mistake this as a horror film for a much older audience. But Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is very much geared toward a younger audience, one that will surely embrace the film as a classic for a new generation of horror lovers. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark effectively captures the primal horror of campfire stories while doing justice by Schwartz's creepy designs in a marriage of old-fashioned practical thrills and sleek modern effects.

Øvredal directs a story by Guillermo del Toro, scripted by Dan and Kevin Hageman, which streamlines the collection of disconnected stories into a narrative about a haunted house in an nondescript mill town. In 1968, a group of teenage friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), August (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) seek revenge on their high school bullies on Halloween night with some petty pranks that lead them to the doorstep of the abandoned Bellows Family Mansion at the edge of town. Accompanied by a young stranger Ramon (Michael Garza), the teens explore the dilapidated mansion, which had once been a go-to spot for teen Halloweeners before a kid mysteriously disappeared. Stella, the group's resident horror girl, launches into a tale about the tragic Sarah Bellows, the unseen daughter of the Bellows clan who was kept confined for her entire life before she hung herself. But in her short life, Sarah became known as a storyteller who would regale local children with scary stories that she would tell through the walls of her isolated room. The group stumble upon Sarah's room, where they discover her dusty book of horror stories, written (aptly) in children's blood. Things kick off when Stella steals the book from the mansion and slowly discovers that Sarah's stories are literally writing themselves — the monsters coming to life to claim everyone who had entered the mansion that night.

As the group scrambles to stop the book from taking more lives, they dig deeper into the Bellows' family history and the true tortured nature of Sarah Bellows. But their efforts are constantly foiled by the appearances of several grotesque monsters, which have appeared to have walked straight out of Schwartz and Gammell's books. The sheer amount of body horror in this film skates gracefully around the PG-13 rating; horrifying enough, but not gory to the point of alienating its audience. But the film's relatively bloodless nature doesn't detract from the horrors that Scary Stories delivers — rather than going for gore, Øvredal doubles down on disgust. In the flesh-like mask of the scarecrow, the terrifying image of a spider sticking its leg from out an swollen pus-filled bite about to burst, one particularly gross sequence with a toe — Scary Story toes the line between absurd and appalling.

Set to the backdrop of 1968 America, the film leans heavily into with pointed references to the election of Richard Nixon and an homage to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The political backdrop seems tangential at first, but the film makes a gesture at deeper meaning by attempting to compare the adults' feverish search for the town's missing kids while turning a blind eye to atrocities "against our children" in Vietnam. However, it can't quite connect the dots. Scary Stories can't seem to decide on whether to lean into its thematic underpinnings or to simply deliver the scares as they are. "You don't read the stories, the stories read you," Stella declares, but apart from one or two of the monsters, they hold no personal connection to the teens that they terrorize. There's no "personal demons" in Scary Stories, but that's all right — the simple universality of these urban legends are what make them so powerful in the first place.

What may turn horror fans off the most to Scary Stories is its teenybopper nature — there is something a little too smooth and glossy about its kid-adventure angle, and the hokey dialogue leaves something to be desired — but it's fitting for a film filled with teenage characters actually played by teenagers. Zoe Colletti is gutsy and captivating as the brainy final girl, but the supporting cast is fairly unremarkable. Michael Garza is a handsome blank, while most of Gabriel Rush's performance is in his lanky physicality. As the resident comic relief, Zajur's loud performance threatens to grate, but his growing paranoia as he's plagued by dreams of a Pale Lady in a Red Room drive one of the most haunting and striking sequences of the film.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark blends a teen slasher flick with the deep-seated horror of urban legends. Despite its 1968 setting, the film feels spiritually more akin to '80s young adult films, particularly in its refusal to gloss over the most disturbing elements of the stories. Scary Stories takes the training wheels off of "kid-friendly" horror — it is made specifically with young audiences in mind, for sure, but the stakes are real and the scares are real. Like a slasher flick, the kids gets slowly picked off by the monsters from the stories, whose fleshy, melty designs are as perfect real-life recreation of Gammell's illustrations as one could ask for.  It's Nightmare on Elm Street meets Stranger Things — the unstoppable dread of encroaching doom married to a kid-adventure sensibility that makes Scary Stories a breeze to watch./Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10