Stories can heal, stories can hurt, and inherently stories have power, and since first publication almost forty years ago Alvin Schwartz’ three volume collection of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have sold more than seven million copies worldwide, so perhaps the only surprise is that it has taken so long for them to be adapted for the screen.
Written by Dan and Kevin Hageman and directed by André Øvredal of Trolljegeren and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the advance publicity focused on the role of producer Guillermo del Toro, and certainly it plays to his customary thematic areas, folk tales, disrupted childhood, the secrets and hidden faces that family hide from public view.
It is the fall of 1968 in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, the adults focused on the upcoming election in which Richard Nixon is polling strongly, the children enjoying the golden evenings as the leaves turn brown and best friends Stella Nicholls, August “Auggie” Hilderbrandt and Charlie “Chuck” Steinberg (Zoe Colletti, Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur) coordinating their plans for Hallowe’en night.
Every town has a legend, and theirs is of the Bellows family, the suicide of daughter Sarah after she supposedly poisoned the children of the townsfolk decades before, and pursued by the school bullies the trio and their ride Ramón (Michael Garza) find themselves at the old Bellows mansion where in a secret room they find the underground cell where Sarah was held, the journal in which she wrote her scary stories, a book cursed and indestructible.
Fumbling the aim of capturing a cool Stranger Things vibe of teen teamwork, of the leads Colletti is by far the best, almost single-handedly carrying the film, though she is not sufficient to distract from Zajur’s persistently annoying schtick, while the adults, led by Ascension’s Gil Bellows as Police Chief Turner, already seem asleep at the wheel, understandable given the script which doesn’t deserve the atmosphere of Roman Osman’s autumnal colour palette or Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack.
Given the certification is has received, it’s difficult to tell who the intended audience for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are, the protagonists too young to appeal to older teens, the subject matter too mature for those who might be impressed by the material which adults will find dated and derivative, and any viewer struggling to maintain attention with the slow pace interrupted by a glacial pause before every obligatory telegraphed jump scare of which there are many.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is currently on general release