Before R.L. Stine and his 1990s empire of Goosebumps and kindred spin-offs came in, there was one series children relied on for literary thrills: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Three anthologies of macabre short stories written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell were published from 1981 to 1991. Apparently in some parts of the country, these children's horror collections were considered controversial. On the East Coast, they were must-reads for third and fourth graders.
To those who know them, the Scary Stories books remain iconic even as the specifics of many of their tales have faded from memory. That would seem to qualify them for feature film adaptation, but how do you do that now? It's horror for the young, but we're more than a generation removed from the line's peak popularity so the target audience can't be children. Hired to crack that code is Academy Award winning virtuoso Guillermo del Toro, who is credited with story and who as producer is the biggest name attached to this $30 million production.
Directed by Norway's André Øvredal (Trollhunter), Scary Stories kind of takes the Goosebumps movie approach, but skews older with a PG-13 rating. More inclusive than many horror movie fans like, that rating nonetheless pushes this just above the original target demographic for the books. This is the rare horror movie where teens are the targeted audience but might not be the ones most interested. That would comprise of anyone who grew up scaring themselves with the books, an audience that now stretches all the way up to adults in their mid-40s.
Del Toro, two others sharing story credit with him, and sibling screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hagerman have picked four of Schwartz's stories and woven them into one coherent narrative. The film is set in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania in 1968 and opens on Halloween night. We see the night unfold from the perspective of a number of teenagers you might have thought would have aged out of the autumnal holiday.
Chuck (Austin Zajur), whose requested Spider-Man costume isn't what he expected, is most excited about pranking a jock who has tormented him for years. His friends Stella (Zoe Colletti) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) are reluctant accomplices. Running away from the infuriated Tommy Milner (Austin Abrams) and his cronies, our young heroes wind up at a drive-in theater showing Night of the Living Dead inside the car of Ramón Morales (Michael Garza), a new kid in town who is just driving through.
Once they're in the clear, Ramón, Chuck, Stella, and Auggie challenge themselves to go explore the haunted old Bellows mansion, where they break in hoping to find some interesting remnants of an infamous child murder that occurred decades ago but remains shrouded in mystery. Instead, they find a book by the slain Sarah Belllows whose stories appear to be written in blood before their very eyes. As the words appear, the stories come true and they're not exactly the gumball storm variety.
An abused scarecrow named Harold is but the first of numerous threats encountered. Despite the PG-13 rating, the thrills remain suitably creepy, with reassembling severed limbs, contorting torsos, and hordes of spiders likely to unsettle especially younger viewers. A non-parody movie with Scary in the title does seem to be setting itself up for disappointment, challenging moviegoers to declare they weren't scared. This particular adaption has the unenviable challenge of having to appease everyone from kids to middle-aged adults. It does a respectable job without ever convincing you this was a movie we needed now and in this way.
Those expectations are too much for a mid-sized, end-of-summer release from a moribund studio that isn't even trying to vie for the usual Halloween business. With this, their third of five movies scheduled for the year, CBS Films just seems to want to get a jump on It: Chapter Two and other edgier seasonal scares.
Scary Stories is not a film that many will love or hate. It's a passable diversion that does not merely coast on a brand (whose strength is easy to doubt), instead putting some effort and thought in. That puts it a step away from conventional studio horror flicks. No one is going to dissect this like Midsommar, but nor will they put together an impassioned trashing of it like they might for an uninspired addition to The Conjuring universe.
Without catering to nostalgia or stepping on the toes of "Stranger Things" and the first It, Scary Stories tries to give some weight to its simple stories, incorporating some historical racism, a Vietnam War draft dodging subplot, and the 1968 presidential election. You get the sense that the filmmakers could have made a better movie but would have set themselves up for likely commercial failure. At the same time, they could have made a much worse movie and emulated Sony's Goosebumps flicks to a T. Or let del Toro and his production design fetish run wild as it did on 2010's already long-forgotten Don't be Afraid of the Dark. Considering all that, the modest results here are quite respectable.
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