“SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK” — 3 stars — Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Austin Abrams; PG-13 (terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references); in general release; running time: 111 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Halloween is a few months away, but “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is giving us a chance to celebrate a little early.
Based on the popular Alvin Schwartz short story horror anthology, “Scary Stories” weaves several tales into a broader narrative about teenagers who disturb a ghost in their small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania.
Andre Ovredal’s film is set during the fall of 1968 — just before the presidential election that put Richard Nixon in office for his first term. On Halloween night, a group of social outcasts gathers for an evening of trick-or-treating.
The group leader is Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), an aspiring writer and diehard monster movie fan who is still nursing the wound left from when her mother abandoned her and her father Roy (Dean Norris). Joined by longtime friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), Stella arranges to pull a revenge prank on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), who also happens to be dating Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn).
When the prank goes awry, the kids get bailed out by an older teen named Ramon (Michael Garza) and eventually everyone winds up at an abandoned home that is supposed to be haunted. Naturally, Stella knows the legend backward and forward and is delighted to discover an old book full of stories that were supposedly written by the house’s ghost — a young tormented girl named Sarah Bellows who took her own life decades earlier.
Every successive night after the group takes the book, a new story appears and a member of the group disappears accordingly. Tommy has a terrifying encounter with a scarecrow named Harold, Auggie has a terrifying encounter with a mysterious pot of stew and so on. Once they catch on to what’s happening, Stella and Ramon have to figure out how to stop the stories before Sarah comes for them, too.
Each demise sees “Scary Stories” modify a popular short title like “The Big Toe” or “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker” into the plot, creating a kind of mini-anthology salute to the original book. On its own, the disturbed ghost in the haunted house framework is pretty routine, but it creates a fun showcase for the short stories, and the film’s effective tension and scares are enough to cover for any lack of originality.
“Scary Stories” also hits that “Stranger Things” sweet spot between kiddie horror like the recent “Goosebumps” movies and the R-rated content of the new Stephen King “It” movies (although the terror and gore in this film remains at a PG-13 level). It’s as fun as it is scary, and to his credit, Ovredal spends more time on atmosphere than relying on cheap jump scares.
While the Stella and Ramon characters draw the most development, most everyone else feels pretty thinly drawn, and “Scary Stories” makes enough persistent references to incoming President Nixon to feel a bit redundant. But in spite of some shortcomings, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a good time and a fun way to watch the summer season draw to a spooky close.
Rating explained: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is rated PG-13 for some scenes of terror and gore, as well as some scattered profanity.