Courtesy of Lionsgate
Any child who grew up reading and being terrified by the novel “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz will probably find themselves in the theater to see its film adaptation. Those fans will be happy to witness all of the books nifty creatures look the same on film as they did on the page. Helmed by Norweigen filmmaker André Øvredal and produced by Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro (sharing a screenwriting credit with Marcus Dunstan, Dan and Kevin Hageman), “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” comes with some pedigree, though the film struggles to keep its characters interesting in light of hastily put together narrative threads that merely serve as glue before the next “story” takes hold.
Ditching the simplicity that made Schwartz urban legends terrifying, “Dark” is a rather mixed bag in terms of quality. On one hand it’s a PG13 rated creature feature targeted towards youngsters just old enough to buy a ticket, and to them it’ll be just the right touch of genre fare to get them acclimated to the horror world. There is some genuine suspense in this, what seems like, toned down version of “The Evil Dead.” Then again, it’s rated PG13 and part of me wishes that Øvredal and his filmmaking team would choose a side. Either go for the blood and guts of an R rated schlock fest, or take the “Goosebumps” route and make it more kid friendly - instead, the crew goes for a happy medium, and the narrative feels hampered because of it.
Either way, the story isn’t all that complex, except the plotting feels extremely convoluted in an Amblin-produced remake sort of way. Set to the tune of Donovan's Halloween anthem “Season of the Witch,” the year is 1968, we’re in the small Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley, Richard Nixon is on the cusp of being elected president, kids are still vandalizing homes with toilet paper, and a squad of teenagers (Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur) have stumbled across a supernatural book that somehow springs to life and - thanks to some unseen force - writes up insane narrative story-lines that, believe it or not, come true and wreak havoc on whomever the focal point of the story is.
So when the book starts unspooling the tale of an inanimate scarecrow named Harold jolting to life and attacking the town jock/bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), like a kiddie version of "Final Destination" that’s exactly what happens. The suspenseful human vs scarecrow showdown quenches the horror thirst early, but the more “Scary Stories” detours into campy absurdness as the brigade must figure out how to stop the force from writing more stories and killing their friends, the quickly it loses your attention.
The film is basically a series of vignettes pieced together by a flimsy concept (think “V/H/S”) and perhaps the film would’ve worked slightly better had it been made for the small screen and broken up into segments. I say this because certain elements - Dean Norris as a somber father figure - don’t add up or justify their screen time. The movie mine as well be a spiritual companion to “Tales from the Dark Side.”
Not to say the entirety of “Scary Stories” is a fluke, there’s one scene inside the worlds most hostile mental hospital that finds redemption in the form of a smiling monster who just wants a hug. It's also where my worst claustrophobic nightmares were heightened, which, judging by the audience reaction around me, played into their fears too. It's the most chilling moment in the entire film where the visuals reach prime Del Toro levels and truly complement the rich cinematography and well executed production design.
After that, "Scary Stories" returns to a clumsy series of threads about kids who are left to pay for the sins of their parents. Touching on topics like racism, systematic oppression and being shipped off to fight a mindless Vietnam war. It's admirable to see a film of this statue attempt to swing for the fences and try to compress decades worth of social commentary into one film, but neither the screenwriters or director manage to bring it all together. Instead Hageman's script is guided by the interconnected universal mentality and decides to opt for a noteworthy (yet ultimately lackluster) blend of CGI and practical effects finale while sticking to a basic resolution that leaves the door open for future installments.
Other fan favorite narrative threads involving a big toe, and one stomach churning zit filled with spiders should get a reaction or two from its core demographic, likely inviting attendees to scream at the characters on screen for making stupid decisions. Don’t worry, you won’t need to mourn for the victims considering most of them are general stereotypes without any weight. All the more shocking when you realize that Del Toro slapped the film with his seal of approval.
To be sure, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” was directed by André Øvredal (who delivered exceptional genre fare in the form of “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” and “Troll Hunter”) - so the film has plenty of jolts, creeks, and noteworthy atmospheric tension that produce mild thrills. And in the end, it’s his touch that prevents the film from appearing like another retread, but I think some of the more loosely defined areas could use a rewrite.