It’s scary in the dark, but the stories that are told in it are even scarier!
Based on the series of frightening children’s books of the same name, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark takes place in 1968 and follows teenagers Stella (Zoe Margaret Colleti), Ramon (Michael Garza), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur) as they explore an old abandoned house on Halloween night only to accidentally stumble upon a cursed book containing numerous terrifying tales of shock and horror. Thinking nothing of it, Stella brings the book back home, but the more she reads the more apparent it becomes that the book itself is writing new stories to tell in the dark, ones that bring the creepy happenings and gruesome monsters of its pages to life to prey on Stella and her unsuspecting friends. Now, with everyone around her in mortal danger and the book showing no signs of slowing it’s eerie writings, Stella must find a way to stop or contain the monstrosities that spill forth from these scary stories or risk becoming a scary story herself.
Full disclosure: I absolutely loved these books as a kid. Between the delightfully macabre tales of the odd and unfortunate to the spine tingling and goosebump inducing illustrations that accompanied them, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was a way to delve into the weird and horrifying with the slight safety net of each story technically being written for children. Luckily for this adaptation (and for fans like me), the filmmakers seem to have the same opinion towards the source material that most of us had while reading the books, and are successfully able to wrangle in a handful of disparate short stories to produce something that is as strange as it is terrifying, even if some elements of the film aren’t as well developed as others.
Like the books before it, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark thrives when its horror elements are in full swing. With a visual style that near perfectly echoes the illustrations from the original books, the filmmakers clearly know where their bread is buttered, and do not shy away from showing off their truly menacing and disturbing monster designs. From the inherent, creepy look of a scarecrow come to life, to the stumbling, ragged figure that is missing a toe and badly wants it back, to the mish-mashed corpse that loses its body parts only to roll them back together again moments later, this film is able to transcend a lot of its flaws whenever these creatures are onscreen, all of which are morbid delights that stay true to the often restricting PG-13 rating by focusing less on gore or violence, and more on giving us a creepy atmosphere to reside in until the credits roll.
But not everything in this film can be as well executed as the visuals and standout horror elements. As with most horror-esque films, the one key ingredient that always seems to be lacking is the acting. Now don’t get me wrong, the young cast does their job as well as can be expected, but with a script that really only nails the scary bits (and even then some of it feels drawn out for no apparent reason), it’s hard to care about any of the characters or feel like anything truly matters outside of the unsettling events that they find themselves in. I know that the point of this film is the scary stories, but wrapping it all up with a bit more character work and better acting could have elevated this film to a whole new level. As it stands casting-wise, I think it was best that the filmmakers took the route they did, even if it left me a bit wanting.
Far from perfect but competently made and fondly adapted, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark thrives when it recreates the visual scares of the books it’s based on, and genuinely delivers some tense horror thrills whenever its sickly and horrifying creatures rear their disturbingly grotesque heads. That being said, the acting and scripting in between said scares leaves a lot to be desired, and there’s most definitely a little too much overreliance on jump scares given the restricting PG-13 rating, but overall – and considering that these books were technically developed for children – this is an adaptation worthy of the source material. Now what’s it gonna take to fast track More Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark?