Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Halloween 1968: a group of teenagers break into an abandoned house while fleeing from bullies. Inside, they discover a book of scary stories. Soon, new stories begin to appear, foretelling deadly endings for the kids.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (based on the children’s short horror story collections by Alvin Schwartz) has a familiar plotline: stories from a book come to life, terrorizing those who read it. That concept was even used for comedic purposes recently in the kid-friendly Goosebumps movies. However, a movie is not about its story, but how it employs it. Even if it is unoriginal, a skillfully made horror movie can work its creepy magic. Mood and tone are often more important than plot, character or blood when it comes to spooking an audience. At a gore-free PG-13, Scary Stories is still scarily effective.
The plot involves a town legend about a young woman who murdered a bunch of children. Her spirit seems to be inhabiting the book. The heroes/victims are all types: the smart one (the only girl), the easily frightened one, the big talker and the mysterious guy who just showed up from out of town. None of them are any more interesting than a short description makes them seem. They are there to run and scream, not be engaging in their own right. The protagonists need to uncover the secrets of the past in the hopes it will prevent their deaths. Despite going exactly how you would expect, it plays into the movie’s strengths instead of holding it back.
The story is nothing special and the characters are stock teenage victims, but director André Øvredal knows how to use what he has to maximum effect. Sound and lighting can be a horror director’s best friend. Sometimes, what we can see yet cannot escape is more frightening than the unknown. He never hides the monsters or uses editing trickery to manipulate a reaction out of the audience. The same is true of audio. This is a little quieter than most commercial horror entries, making what is heard extra startling. Since the plot is simple, he can focus on his style, which is clever and consistently creepy.
Most of the action takes place at night, though Øvredal found a way to use darkness in a non-contrived way even during daytime interior scenes. The villain manifests herself as a shadow. So whenever we see a moving black cloud, we can predict dire consequences for the next person to have their name appear in the book. They are trapped by fate, with no hope for rescue. That ups the tension down the stretch because the visual cues imply doom. It is also impressive how he uses the various monsters. Each story includes a different threat, whether it is a murderous scarecrow or a creature whose limbs can pop off and on. Øvredal makes the effort to show us what his effects team has created, lingering on the disturbing details. They do not look “real,” however they fit perfectly into the nightmarish feel of the whole production.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (101 minutes, minus the end credits) works because the filmmakers concentrate on its strengths and spend as little time as necessary on its weaknesses. It does not waste time on its thin characters and its plot is mainly there to set up the scares. A lot of energy is put into creating its world through mood and building tension. This is not great horror, but it is fully aware of what it can do and does it well. It is an effective use of a well-worn premise.
3¼ out of 5
Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza as Ramón Morales
Austin Zajur as Chuck Steinberg
Gabriel Rush as Auggie Hilderbrandt
Natalie Ganzhorn as Ruth
Directed by André Øvredal
Screenplay by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman and Guillermo del Toro