“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” actually makes you care about the fates of its characters, likable or venal. It has a way of treating even the gross-out bits, involving scarecrow transformation nastiness and the aftermath of a Cinerama Dome-sized spider bite, for real emotion and no little anguish. The movie’s good even when it goes in too many directions at once, because it gets the kids right.
It comes from a half-dozen short, sharp tales of woe – and “whoa!” – created by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated, with fabulous, sinister panache, by Stephen Gammell. The first volume was published in 1981, followed by two sequels. Since there’s no connective tissue in the original collections and the film is not a series of separate, “Twilight Zone”-model episodes, the project faced a daunting adaptation challenge. How to give ‘em enough story in between the stories to make the thing hang together?
“Scary Stories” recalls the recent, massively popular Stephen King adaptation “It” (2017) in its attempt to provide a narrative spine, a creepy backstory, an awful small-town secret and a reason for all the disappearances and unsolved murders in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley. Director Andre Ovredal (“Trollhunter,” “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) and screenwriters Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman cleverly stitch here and amalgamate there, working from the story cooked up by producer Guillermo del Toro along with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan.
The protagonist is Stella, an emotionally isolated high school student living with her father, coping with the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Stella and her pals Chuck and Augie get to know Ramon, new in town and instantly targeted as Not Their Kind by police and civilians alike. Ramon’s story is that he’s “following the harvest” and going where the work takes him. The TVs everywhere in “Scary Stories” flood us with images of the war in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon on the eve of his presidential election.
The new story material goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a cruelly treated woman, Sarah Bellows, who was locked up in the family mansion and spent her time spinning all sorts of horror stories. Sarah’s book is discovered by Stella when the kids investigate the abandoned mansion on Halloween, joined by Chuck’s sister, Ruth.
The stories in long-dead Sarah’s big book directly implicate the 1968-era kids at the movie’s center, so that they take turns living out what’s being written, before their eyes, in blood-red ink. (Nice visual effect there.) As Stella, Zoe Colletti is terrific – a lower-key and very affecting variation on Velma in “Scooby-Doo” – bright, somewhat withdrawn but a born adventurer even if she finds out the hard way.
The rest of the cast is uneven. For every intuitive and effective performance, such as Michael Garza’s Ramon or Gabriel Rush’s Augie, there’s a strained or one-note turn (Austin Zajur’s Chuck quickly grows tiresome). Along with Colletti, the real stars are the monsters, and the closer they hew to the Gammell illustrations, the better. The digital effects are unusually evocative, even when the thrill sequences play out in the expected ways.
In the realm of PG-13-rated horror, “Scary Stories” may well be a difficult sell with its target audience, falling between the cracks of what’s hot on TV (“Stranger Things”) and bigger, frankly less compelling movies on the order of “It” (sequel forthcoming). Whatever on the financial predictions. I happily stuck with “Scary Stories” for its clever, compelling solutions to its own adaptation problems. It’s not a classic; as I said up top, it’s good, which means it’s better than most of what we’ve gotten this summer.
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