For kids in the ’80s and ’90s, flipping through the pages of Alvin Schwartz’s horror anthology Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was like tasting forbidden fruit. You’d anxiously eat it up under the blankets with a flashlight. The grotesque charcoal and ink illustrations would practically smudge your fingers. Everything about these books seemed so vivid and alive. They made me and my brother feel like we were lost in a fever dream, trapped in permanent midnight.
The film adaptation of the book series isn’t quite as scary, but it beautifully depicts the innocence and wonder wrapped up in spooky campfire yarns. Scary Stories captures the youthful warmth that cuts through the chill of the Halloween season.
The film opens in the quiet haven of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1968. Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” creeps onto the soundtrack as we meet the main characters: Stella (Zoe Colletti), an aspiring horror author, and her two friends, the rowdy Chuck (Austin Zajur) and the reserved Auggie (Gabriel Rush). They go out trick-or-treating in the hopes of exacting revenge upon their lifelong bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams in an elegantly villainous turn that reveals the true demons behind his jock demeanor).
Director André Øvredal quickly establishes a rich atmosphere. You can practically smell the rotting leaves and feel the fall breeze. Like the kids, you’ll feel scared yet exhilarated as they run around the town. A particularly memorable scene finds them cutting through a drive-in movie theater lot while the original Night of the Living Dead plays. In this moment, you can sense the filmmakers’ reverence for the horror genre, which is no surprise considering monster-meister Guillermo del Toro shares a story and producer credit.
The night eventually takes the teens to a haunted house where they discover a collection of scary stories that soon start jumping off the page. Here’s where we get the book series’ greatest hits: a scarecrow springing to sinister life; a ghost angrily searching for its missing toe; a swarm of spiders bursting out of a girl’s cheek. These sequences are more fun than frightening. They’re certainly not as deeply bone-chilling as my childhood memories of them.
Øvredal and screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman cleverly emphasize the all-too-real terrors surrounding the teens’ otherworldly ordeals. The camera lingers on news footage of Vietnam invading their living rooms. If they’re not whisked away by witches, ghouls or goblins, Stella’s friends definitely stand a chance of being shipped off to war.
Colletti effectively carries the film, making Stella’s sorrow and desperation our own. She shares compelling, organic chemistry with Rush and Zajur, making them seem like actual lifelong friends. Michael Garza also delivers an engaging and poignant performance as Ramón, a draft dodger they meet while he’s hiding out on Halloween night. This charismatic ensemble nearly rivals the one in 2017’s It.
Scary Stories probably won’t scar you forever like the book series. But this tender, nostalgic embrace of horror makes for perfect viewing on a crisp autumn evening.