In the opening moments of director André Øvredal’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” a child’s voice tells us that stories have the power to hurt or heal. They make us who we are. True to its word, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” delivers an entrancing thriller that explores the power of narratives with a few screams to boot.
It’s welcoming enough for teens and perhaps just creepy enough for the average grown-up horror movie fan, since producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro is one of the filmmakers bringing the monsters from Alvin Schwartz’s original novels to the big screen.
Like a late-’60s send-up of “Stranger Things” (itself a reference to other horror-movie inspirations from the ’80s), “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” follows a close group of friends, all outsiders, as their paths cross with a nefarious, supernatural presence. The movie is chock-full of references to older horror movies, and ardent genre fans may enjoy the old posters on a horror buff’s bedroom walls while those fresher to the genre can follow-up this movie by watching the original “Night of the Living Dead” and “Halloween” if they haven’t already.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” begins in the rather innocuous Pennsylvania small town of Mill Valley on Halloween in 1968. The world’s real scares seem to be outside most of the place’s view, although Richard Nixon’s upcoming re-election and news of the Vietnam War loom large in the background. But for high schoolers Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti, “City on a Hill”), Augie (Gabriel Rush, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Chuck (Austin Zajur, “Fist Fight”), their minds are on spending Halloween night getting back at their school’s resident bully, a letterman jacket-wearing jock named Tommy (Austin Abrams, “Euphoria”).
In the trio’s misadventures, they’re joined by a new face in town, Ramón (Michael Garza, “Wayward Pines”), and then seek out a haunted house with a tragic history, a place where a woman was once hidden from the world by her cruel family, one of the town’s richest and oldest founders. The ghost of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) still haunts her family’s old boarded-up manor, but it’s her ghostly fondness for telling bone-chilling stories that will really keep the teenagers up at night.
Under this unifying arc, the movie feels less of a collection of short stories and more of puzzling mystery to solve through good old-fashioned dives through newspaper archives, medical records and a search for one of the last living souls who remembers Sarah. The kids’ race against the next deadly story to claim one of their own turns out to be just as entertaining as the stuff that nightmares are made of — zombie-like corpses breaking into your home or a wayward zit sprouting a spider leg. Cinematographer Roman Osin (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) plunges many of these monsters into dark blue and green tones. Others pop out under bright fluorescent lights, pitch-black darkness, flickering lights or under the glow of foreboding red alarms. The creatures’ assorted visual styles maintain the essence of the books’ anthology structure and keep the audience in suspense for whenever the next one will jump out.
Though most of the movie is a pure delight, some bumps in the night aren’t as smooth. Writers Dan and Kevin Hageman (“Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia”) share screenplay credit with del Toro and two previous authors, Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. It’s possible that the flurry of writing activity may have left behind some rogue lines of clunky dialogue or underwritten new additions. The movie seems to want to make some connection between today’s culture of fear through Ramón’s run-ins with racist cops and bullies and Nixon’s mug dominating TV sets, but it stops short of fully tying these themes together.
Although perhaps not the most terrifying movie to hit theaters this season, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is effectively spooky, working as both a potential genre gateway drug and nostalgic catnip for readers of the original trilogy. If you were one of those unlucky kids forbidden from reading banned books, now’s your chance to find out what you missed all those years ago. You don’t need to be familiar with the source to enjoy the movie.
“Scary Stories” feels surprisingly welcoming for a horror movie, leaving aside excess gore and chills for a solid yarn about teens on a thrilling horror adventure romp in their small town.