PG-13 horror is a tough needle to thread. There have been a successes such as The Ring, Insidious, and The Sixth Sense, but the number of failures is countless, from the direct to video market to the now direct to streaming, that list gets longer every year. Horror by nature has almost always been a money maker for studios due to the fact that they are so cheap to make. Which is usually why there are so many sequels when the original was almost forgotten to even have existed. An even older success for studios is basing a film on a book, or as the YA fans have noticed a series of books.
As legendary as the classic tales within, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is stories based on folklore and urban legends, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, has been frightening school children since the 1980’s. Before R.L. Stine terrified kids in his Goosebumps series, Scary Stories had an impressive staying power as it had kids trading the stories as if they did happen to a distant cousin in another town. I remember stories told after dark with friends and family, like The Hook, Sam’s New Pet, High Beams, and that gruesome Big Toe one it’s as if they took on a new life with every telling. It’s surprising that it took this long to be made into a film, but with the help of producer Guillermo del Toro we get a glimpse into that scary world.
Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is the quiet girl with glasses that does her best to stay invisible at school. With her only two friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) they venture out on Halloween night 1968, which they claim will be their last time as they are now in high school and have no more time for kid stuff. They encounter Ramón (Michael Garza) who helps them out with a school bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams) and together end up trapped in a local haunted house. While there, Stella takes a book belonging to famed child killer Sarah Bellows with stories written by her in blood. After they get out of the spooky basement the haunted book starts to invade the kids lives, telling stories that bring their worst nightmares to gruesome life.
If Goosebumps is the kid version of spooky tales, Scary Stories is definitely the step up before you get to rated R horror. There is genuine scares and some body horror, one in particular is cut in such away that even in the dark with flickering lights is terrifying. Screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman with screen story by del Toro and director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) manage to pull together a pretty great film. Instead of going the anthology route or a Creepshow style loosely connected tales, they incorporate the stories into a clever take making the book the thing causing creepy creatures to come after Stella and her friends. And the even more widely used time-before-cellphones setting helps keep the kids isolated and unable to go to adults for help. The timeframe also is a great back drop with its own kind of terror with the Vietnam War coverage and Nixon on everyones television.
The young cast helps carry the film through some of the slower moments, but when a creature shows up they bring the scares as most are done practically with some CG help, except for one of the last ones which is less believable and even less scary in its CG-ness. But nothing takes away from the excellent vibe the film gives off. The running theme about how stories can both hurt and heal has been with me for days and is usually in the forefront or background of del Toro’s work from Hellboy to Pans Labyrinth. You can certainly feel his fingerprints on this one, and I wonder what this would have been with him at the helm. Not to take anything away from Øvredal who does a decent job with his low camera angles and staying away from cheap scares.
It makes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a solid entry into the realm of PG-13 horror. Even though it’s not up the standards of the classics mentioned at the top of this review, I would without a doubt show this one to my kids when they are ready well before I get to something like The Ring. And hopefully by design the filmmakers pushed me to re-buy the Scary Stories books so that I can read them to my kids in order to keep the medium alive while keeping the little ones both terrified but screaming for more.