Movie Guru: If you loved the “Scary Stories” books as a kid, you might not like the new movie as much
Scary stories to tell in the dark
Rated: PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets and brief sexual references
Screenplay by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman
Screen story by Guillermo del Toro
Story by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton
Based on the book by Alvin Schwartz
Directed by André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur and more
Grade: Two and a half stars
It’s hard when Hollywood adapts something you loved as a kid.
That’s something an entire generation of audience members will need to keep in mind when they watch “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” An adaptation of a series of beloved children’s horror books from the 1980s, the movie has some interesting ideas, but misses the elemental creepiness of the originals. Though it does manage some genuinely unsettling moments, it’s too scattered to coalesce into something truly frightening.
The movie is set in 1969, when a group of kids visit an abandoned house with a locked room downstairs. The room has a book of scary stories in it, and when one of the kids takes the book home the stories start coming to life. As the kids disappear one by one, they must find a way to stop the book before it’s too late.
There are several references to stories from the books, but the overall feel is similar to your average slasher flick. Though it’s not as gory as it could be, it’s definitely not the sort of movie for bringing the kids along. Even the creepiest illustrations, some of which are faithfully replicated here, are less scary than seeing someone get their neck broken.
At least, that’s true when kids are watching. The movie manages some solidly creepy moments for adult audiences, none of which require previous knowledge of the book series. Some of the best moments aren’t the kind of things you’d normally see in horror movies, including a great twist on the usual homicidal scarecrow. The more visceral the movie gets, the more horrifying it is.
Sadly, it gets bogged down all too easily. The original books were full of bare-bones stories, barely longer than the version you’d hear around a campfire. The movie does a good job tying the stories together into the larger story, but it gets too distracted by details. The backstories start developing backstories, and swipes at some kind of thematic parallel where Nixon falls flat.
Watching the movie, it was clear to me that no one on the creative team knew how to balance the resulting mess. Guillermo del Toro’s name has been loudly attached to the movie, but he only came up with the general story idea. The script and direction were handled by people who don’t have the same gift for deep, cohesive storytelling that he does. They weren’t bad, but they left too many trailing, conflicting ends.
If you can brush them aside, though, there’s a decent story here. It’s not exactly the story I wanted, but it’s still scary enough to satisfy.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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