‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” was a staple of childhood reading for many of us, and the three books by Alvin Schwartz are still enjoyable and chilling to this very day. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that they are iconic children’s literature for the millennial generation along with the likes of the Harry Potter series or “The Hobbit.”
Now, director André Øvredal has turned Schwartz’s stories into a film as fantastic as the author’s works. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is, without a doubt, the best family horror film since 1990’s “Arachnophobia” or 1982’s “Poltergeist.” It’s that much fun.
When several friends visit an abandoned house in their town known for the tragic past of one of its former residents, they unleash something terrible from a book they find there. As each story within the book jumps from page to reality, one by one the teenagers meet their doom at the hands of different horrors that come for them from their deepest fears.
Taking place in the late 1960s before Nixon’s re-election, the film manages to amazingly re-create the social tension of the era while making thoughtful social commentary. But this doesn’t override the fantastic cast of up-and-coming actors, the layered plot of horrific intrigue, and the thoroughly frightening set pieces and ghouls throughout.
Add to this that it manages to make some of these horrific stories mostly gore free, adhering to the books’ origins as reading for all ages, and this is quite a feat. Everything about the film is well thought-out, creating something that feels fresh and new but with a dose of nostalgia.
Actors Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Natalie Ganzhorn and Austin Zajur make a great cast of teenage companions. They all play off each other quite well with solid chemistry that is a bit reminiscent of “The Goonies” or even “Stranger Things,” though maybe not quite as good as the latter.
The scares are where the movie shines, and in any horror film that’s both the heart and the backbone. The film thankfully doesn’t rely totally on jump scares, in fact only using them a couple of times when it seems fitting and even a bit unsuspected. Other frights in the film are set up and executed through chilling scenery and foreboding creatures who come to drag the characters to unpreventable fates. Still other scares and moments of dread rely on the film’s incredible secondary cast: its monsters.
The creatures and the set pieces used to convey their horrific natures are so well made and look so authentically replicated from the illustrations of the book that it absolutely makes the film a cut above. The Jangly Man is terrifying, Harold the Scarecrow is a walking nightmare, and several other familiar creepy-crawlies make appearances that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a cold, raspy, bone-chilling breath of fresh air. In fact, in a year of movies with more than a few disappointments, this film is a complete surprise and an absolute blast. It comes out at a fantastic sweet spot, too: just before the end of summer, and before the beginning of fall as Halloween approaches.
Hopefully, audiences will love this excellent horror film as much as I did, and word of mouth will be able to give it some extra success once everyone gets the fun stupidity of “Hobbs and Shaw” out of their systems.
Lastly, genre fans of horror should not think once about shrugging off this film as something lesser because it’s technically viewable for most audiences. Don’t be fooled: This may be OK for preteens to see due to its lack of blood, gore and sexual situations, but it is one of the year’s best and most effective horror films. It will, without a doubt, give kids and adults nightmares — and possibly become a new horror classic.
If you enjoy “Scary Stories” as much as I did, check out Andre Ovredal’s other horror flick “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.” Though “Scary Stories” is a better film, “Jane Doe” is an unsettling quick watch with an unexpected and fascinating premise.
* * *
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is currently playing at the Riverside Cinemas in Aberdeen.
George Haerle holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing for media and lives in Cosmopolis.