”Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a genuinely solid horror film, and its effectiveness is all the more impressive since it only had a PG-13 rating to work with. Adapted for the screen by producer Guillermo del Toro from three volumes of illustrated horror novels for children, the film brings contemporary jump scares and heavy gore from many of the stories found in the books to life. It has the effect of the tension and horror one might find while listening to a ghost story while sitting around the fire.
Most modern horror falls into two general categories – the hard R with extreme levels of graphic violence and vivisections (such as Raw), and the more general-audience softer-R to the hard PG-13 flavor which is more supernatural thriller (“Stephen King’s It,” “Stranger Things,” “Get Out,” and “It Follows”). For all its popularity and being billed as horror, “Stranger Things” may have some tension, but there’s no horror to be found anywhere.
In “Scary Stories,” the horror is very much present and center of the narrative. A group of friends enter a local scary old mansion on Halloween night, and discover an old book in the cellar filled with the lunatic writings of an ill-fated prior resident of the house. They take the book with them, and on reading it over, discover it has empty pages but now new stories written in apparent blood begin to appear, with their own names in them, and they find that its original owner is more than a bit angry that they have stolen it.
The general framework is not technically complicated, it’s a blend of the group of The Losers from It, the chasing them down of “Final Destination,” and doing homework to try to find a solution from about 1/4th of the episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” What works here is the quality of the original stories by Alvin Schwartz and the genuinely nightmare-inducing illustrations by Stephen Gammell and their adaptation by way of del Toro and the direction of André Øvredal (who directed the criminally under-appreciated indie horror film, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe).”
The level of horror and the imagery that they do manage to get away with is certainly pushing the high bar for PG-13, however it still falls within the parameters and is accessible to tweens and teens, since that’s what del Toto and Øvredal had set out to do. In recent interviews they expressed that they were striving for, to be “making a gateway horror movie for a new generation“. The books have influenced nearly two generations now of young readers as their early or first experiences with horror, but have been just as effective for adults as well and the film if anything, improves on some of the source stories along the way.
If the goal of this particular film is to be true horror, with an emphasis on the sensation of horror and dread in the audience, it succeeds markedly. Rather than leaning on spraying guts across the scene, or on simply waiting for the killer to jump out, the story builds, and it doesn’t skimp on the danger. The main group might be kids, but this time around, the Clown doesn’t give them all back in the end.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is now open in theaters everywhere.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5