Producer and co-writerGuillermo del Toro teams up with director André Øvredal to bring horror lovers Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Adapted from Alvin Schwartz's 1980s young adult book series, the film may not creep into viewers' minds and send tingles up their spines, but it does deliver stomach-turning frights throughout this accessible teen mystery.
The movie is set in the year 1968, in Mill Valley. This small town in Pennsylvania welcomes Halloween with jack o' lanterns on its porches and pumpkin pies sitting in storefront windows. A motley crew of high school teenagers go out trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. Inebriated, the town's bullying band of jocks menace the group of friends. They retaliate and run away, eventually ending up at the Bellows mansion. There, they break into the haunted estate, where the tortured soul of Sarah Bellows resides. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and Ramón (Michael Garza) steal Sarah's haunted book. When it begins writing its own stories inked in blood, the teens suffer horrific effects and race to solve the mystery of Sarah Bellows before they're all swallowed up by the book's terrors.
The horror in the movie certainly gets the skin crawling. Thanks to Del Toro's extensive experience, and thanks to its PG-13 rating, the movie succeeds over other recent horror movies that have been made for younger audiences. Where Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and The House with a Clock in Its Walls are limited to cartoonish thrills, Del Toro evokes visceral disgust with grotesque creatures and abominable bodily horrors. While exploiting the discomforts of adolescence, he smartly chooses to portray the loss of control over one's own body in ways that are nauseously graphic, yet not gory.
Supporting the ghastly visuals are the cast, who do a fine job of playing their roles and each of the actors and actresses are on point. Colletti and Garza do well in conveying the budding love interest in their characters, given the limits of the script. Natalie Ganzhorn, who plays Ruth, gives a standout performance with utterly arresting screams of fear. And Austin Abrams succeeds in his performance of Tommy, a bully whose cruelty sneers through his drunken haze.
What's more is that the film achieves a modest degree of depth in an area where many horror movies fall short-the resolution of the tortured soul's pain. Stella says, "Stories hurt. Stories heal. If we repeat them enough, they become real." The story shows viewers a satisfying connection between Sarah Bellows' personal history and the pain that drives her ghostly existence, as well as the way that the pain is released so that healing can begin.
There is room for improvement though. While the movie is entertaining enough, the plot is driven largely by action. This leaves the characters underdeveloped. Consider Stella's explanation of how the Sarah Bellows' book works. "You don't read the book, the book reads you," she says. There's very little exploration of how the book reads into a person's deepest, darkest fears.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark would have benefitted from deeper character development, but it succeeds in many other important ways. It's a solid film that ought to please fans of campfire horror and teen adventures, as well as those who are looking to experience family-friendly frights.