Many people may remember the anthology series titled “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” from when they were children. The book series is a nostalgia trip for an entire generation of horror fans, and thus is ripe to receive the feature film treatment just like so many other beloved stories and old shows. While I personally did not read the series as a child, I was certainly aware of the popularity of the novels and of the universal acclaim they had. André Øvredal’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a worthy ode to those who loved the books and will entertain horror fans who go to see it, but it will not be remembered for nearly as long as the novels because it never quite breaks new ground.
When pitching a feature film based on a series of anthology books, the writers had to find a way to simultaneously make the film accessible to a wide range of audiences and keep the spirit of the books–so they went the same route as the Goosebumps film from 2015. A group of loner high school kids are having fun on Halloween when they visit an abandoned house to pursue some scares. While exploring the house, they find rooms and artifacts they were not supposed to come across, and they accidentally release a curse that brings back dark secrets and puts their lives in danger. A book that they find in the house starts writing its own horror stories in front of their eyes–and they are the victims.
While this plot is compelling enough, it feels like a combination of countless horror or fantasy movies. The plot makes one think a bit of Jumanji but the aesthetic and small-town horror feel makes the film feel like a ripoff of It. However, what makes this film bearable is the director’s creativity when it comes to the actual horror. The plot is generic, sure, but it is well-paced and interesting enough to carry the viewer through the runtime without issue. The first act is the slowest part of the film, with the characters at a moderately interesting level but not being enough to get me to care more than the surface level. However, once the action finally starts the pacing and the scares get considerably better and more well-thought out.
The first scene in the haunted house and an initial scene involving a scarecrow have some very predictable jump-scares, but a scene involving a severed toe finally shows the audience what the film is capable of. From that point on, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark only gets more interesting and the horror gets steadily more effective. The plot never seems to rise above its generic nature but Øvredal does a lot with a little, giving most scenes a cinematic flair that heightens the tension further. A particularly good scene is one in the hallways of a hospital, where Øvredal places a character in a dire situation that made my skin crawl. His shot placement is meticulous and puts the audience in the shoes of the characters that are being attacked by various monsters and other creatures.
While the ending is very cliché and it rips off other films in the genre yet again, it is given enough of a contemplative message regarding the power of stories in everyday life that it holds up regardless. Nothing is especially bad about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but it is not incredible at anything either. The makeup and effects are fantastic and Øvredal put his all into the production, but it still seems to be a wholly forgettable experience. The stories that this film is based on are unique and terrifying, but even though they were children’s horror stories this film feels like a watered down version of those chilling tales.
Adding another fun horror movie to the Halloween catalog is never a bad thing, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an entertaining haunted house-like frightfest. However, once the film ends, not much more thought will be put into the events that occur, and the specific details of the plot will probably be forgotten within a couple months. Nothing is offensive about this movie and as horror movies go it is above average, but it never takes enough risks to become anything more than a serviceable late-night watch.
I give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a B-.