Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark begins on Halloween, at the tail end of the “Make America Great Again” movement’s golden era. Director André Øvredal sets the story in 1968, with Vietnam in full swing, and Americans days away from electing Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon as their president.
Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are a group of teens who plan on making the most of their favourite holiday. They dress up and go undercover as trick-or-treaters to lure a local bully (Austin Abrams) into a gross-as-hell trap.
The plan works, and the bully chases them into a haunted mansion. But escaping their tormentor is the least of the gang’s worries – because they’re in a freaking haunted mansion. Stella finds a cursed book and draws the wrath of a vengeful spirit. Once she takes the book home, Stella realizes that people’s names randomly show up on its pages, followed by stories recounting that person’s deepest fears. And whatever the book says also happens in real life. As people start disappearing, Stella and her friends must act quickly to end the reign of terror before the book claims them too.
Right from the opening frame, Scary Stories does an incredible job creating a sense of place. DP Roman Osin’s camerawork captures a Norman Rockwell-esque vibe that recreates the era’s charms. Classic Fords and Chevys cruise the streets while teens in Buddy Holly glasses make their way home from school, all beneath the soft glow of the autumn sun. The setting feels warm, inviting, and most importantly, safe.
But beneath the pleasant exterior, racism, sexism, war, and mysticism are poisoning the town at its roots. Production Designer David Brisbin creates magic once the sun goes down, the ghouls come out, and the town becomes a living nightmare. You couldn’t ask for a spookier setting. Beams of moonlight cut through the ever-present mist, a potential jump-scare lurks within each shadow, and the town’s haunted mansion looks appropriately gothic.
You can’t discuss this movie without pointing out the first-class creature designs. Each of the film’s monsters looks incredible, and they push the boundaries of what you can scare people with in a PG-13 movie. What’s most impressive is how these fiends stay true to the gruesome imagery in Alvin Schwartz’ books without looking kid-friendly. Mostly because the artwork in the “kids books” doesn’t look kid-friendly, thanks to Stephen Gammell’s macabre illustrations.
The creatures look so good that Øvredal doesn’t have to keep them hidden in the shadows. Harold the Scarecrow looks just as menacing in broad daylight, and the Pale Lady is still terrifying under bright fluorescent lights. Part of the charm is that the movie opts to create these walking nightmares with practical effects. But to the film’s credit, the CG ghouls are almost as unsettling. Mostly due to the creep-tastic way the VFX team animates every herky-jerky movement. These monstrosities will sear their images into a generation of kids impressionable brains.
But creepy monsters aren’t the reason this film gets under your skin. Øvredal has some serious genre movie cred, and his experience elevates the production. His last horror movie, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a film that crawls under your skin and haunts you for months; whispering in your ear every time you enter a dark room. Øvredal has an excellent command of atmosphere and pacing, and he uses those skills to ratchet up the tension and invoke night sweats from his viewers. He crafts several solid setpieces but dials the scare-factor down for children. The target audience may be 12-15-years-old, but this film is scary enough to rattle adults.
Øvredal’s tense, atmospheric, and well-paced horror flick offers plenty of thrills. But you can feel the strain of the writers breaking from the story’s anthology roots. This movie delivers a series of great setpieces tied together by a ho-hum narrative. Stella, with her love of monster movies and dysfunctional family, has the makings of a great protagonist, and Colletti does an admirable job carrying the film. But most of the characters are underwritten and reduced to one-note personalities. Making matters worse, aside from Colletti and Michael Garza, the kids lack chemistry.
Right now, It has to be the gold standard for this type of picture. It delivers blood-curdling chills as well as memorable heroes that viewers enjoy spending time with. People saw It for the scares, but they re-watch it and quote it because they love the characters – it’s the same formula that hooked millions of viewers on Stranger Things. Scary Stories is still an admirable horror flick, but only nails half of the equation. Simply put: it lacks the charm of better films. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an enjoyable movie that will make your heart race even as the characters leave your heart cold.