It’s difficult to say just how many people were kept up late at night as little kids, afraid to turn off their flashlights and emerge from under their blankets, for fear of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. But it was certainly a lot. The book series featured short stories by Alvin Schwartz, and they were frequently gruesome, but Stephen Gammell’s eery illustrations were the real nightmare fuel. Gammell’s disturbingly detailed horror imagery revealed itself, often quite unexpectedly, from Rorschach splatters of drippy ink, as though they were being painted right in front of our eyes by a diseased imagination. Even Schwartz’s most innocuous tales looked utterly unwholesome when viewed through Gammell’s eyes.
But now we have all-new eyes, and although they owe fealty to both Schwartz and Gammell’s original work, they seem a little hackier than before. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the movie, comes courtesy of director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and it’s an overlong, unconvincingly nostalgic framing device for several adaptations of the books’ most iconic tales. Schwartz’s stories are intact, and the influence of Gammell’s signature imagery is everywhere. There’s no shortage of excellent scary moments in this movie, but you’ll have to trudge through some tedium to get there.
Scary Stories stars Zoe Margaret Colletti (Wildlife) as Stella, a teenaged horror enthusiast in 1968 who, on Halloween night, breaks into the spooky old house on the edge of town with her best friends. The house belonged to Sarah Bellows, a child-murderer who wrote terrifying tales of her own, and when Stella removes those scary stories (presumably to tell to the dark) from the basement, new stories start appearing in the book. Stories about Stella and her friends. And naturally, those stories come to life and drag each of the characters into their own personal hell.
There’s very little to be said about the overarching story of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Like Goosebumps and Annabelle Comes Home before it, it’s a Pandora’s Box framing device where the set-up is contrived but efficient, getting all the monsters out as quickly as possible because there’s no sense in belaboring the point. And there’s also no sense in critiquing the film for giving us exactly what we want by cutting to the chase.
But in a story as simplistic as “evil book, stories real, run from ghosts” it falls to the characters to keep our interest alive. Colletti is a fine lead, playing a creative and emotional teenager who respects the power of stories and has unexpectedly kooky taste in horror films. (There’s an Indestructible Man poster in her bedroom, a film which is… really not very good.)
Stella’s got some depth but most of her fellow characters are mostly stuck with stock personality types like “funny guy,” “squeamish guy,” “racist” and “debutante.” They don’t feel like they’re living in the real world. They barely even feel they’re living in a movie. Most of the time it’s like they got trapped at the outline stage.
Theoretically, the “Scary Stories” that come to life would tell us all we need to know about these people them, since they all become plagued by things they’re allegedly afraid of. But the connection between the characters and their phobias is usually very blunt – the debutante is afraid of zits, the squeamish guy is afraid of gross food – and when they’re not, they practically feel random.
Case in point: the scene where a kid who lives on a farm is terrorized by his family’s creepy scarecrow is pretty obvious, but at least it makes sense. The scene where a kid gets attacked by “The Pale Lady” (one of the books’ most notorious creations) in a room that’s red because one time he saw a lady in a room that was red… yeah, that doesn’t quite have the same sting.
André Øvredal brings all the creatures to life with impressive visual effects that capture the otherworldly energy of Gammell’s drawings, and he knows how to stretch out Schwartz’s often straightforward set-ups into creepy little engines of suspense. They may not always say much about the characters or have anything to do with the story, but they’re always spooky in the actual moment, and punctuate this frequently perfunctory film with genuine jolts and startles.
Where the film really comes together, literally and figuratively, is the segment with “The Jangly Man,” a creature who represents the fears of a boy named Ramón Morales, played excellently by Michael Garza (Wayward Pines). For once the film actually finds the right balance between visceral horror and psychological fear, and matches a character with an imaginative monster which reveals more about them than the dialogue alone. Some of the other “scary story” interludes are creepy – “Harold” the scarecrow certainly qualifies, and the spider sequence is a squirmer – but “The Jangly Man” is a glimpse of everything amazing this movie could have been if only the stories and characters felt more connected to each other.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark doesn’t do a disservice to the original books. When he’s telling weird supernatural tales Øvredal is clearly in his element, and the movie often works very well for several, breathless minutes at a time. But in between those excellent scares there’s a lot of filler, a lot of perfunctory plotting and a lot of mediocre character development. Scary Stories isn’t bad, and sometimes it’s really scary, but it doesn’t play like a standalone story that needed to be told.