MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint/Runtime: 108 minutes
If there was ever a genre of film that seemed a little bit topsy-turvy I definitely feel that “Kid-friendly horror” would definitely be either near the top of the list or at the top altogether. Yet even with that in mind, the reality of the situation is that this particular genre is actually quite noteworthy. This is because since most scary films are way too adult and mature for kids, kid-friendly horror films are wonderful for the younger end of the movie-loving spectrum since with these films they can be scared silly yet not to the point of traumatization.
Yet even with that being said, it should also be said that with such a noble goal in mind, it also means that every single film in this particular sub-genre must tiptoe across a very thin and very fine line. This is because if a finished product is too cautious then it can be seen as way too calm and not particularly scary. However if a film goes way too far on the other side of the pendulum then they risk losing their niche audience. Suffice it to say then that it is a very difficult type of film to nail down, but when a film is able to it is blessed with the gift of becoming a treasured gem that those young movie lovers will remember always.
Now while we as audience members have had the pleasure of witnessing a few specific films in the past few years or so definitely try to conjure up some age-appropriate chills, I definitely think it is safe to say that Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark most certainly does it better than most of them by far and away. Indeed this is a film which manages to utilize its timeless source material and transform it into a motion picture that possesses a lively energy yet is also capable of being actually scary and chilling when it needs to be.
“But Alan you might be saying how is it possible to make a proper film adaptation since the book series of the same name doesn’t really have what you might consider an overarching plot due to being no more than an assortment of short stories?” Yes that is actually true, but that is where I feel this film’s screenwriters, among them much-loved film maestro Guillermo del Toro, all do a magnificent job of unleashing all the mayhem from the stories on a small town while also crafting an ingenuous backstory to explain it all. Thus despite being eerily familiar due to it being the same path that the 2015 adaptation of Goosebumps took, this film also does a fantastic job of both serving as its own independent entity while also crafting an adventure that is both a lively and creepy cinematic outing that also comes equipped with one of the most likable cinematic squads since The Goonies back in ’85.
The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time about 50+ years to the year of 1968, our film’s narrative finds its beginnings on the time-honored holiday that is Halloween in the small town of Mill Valley as we see a group of young people decide to get into the holiday by going on a trip to the dilapidated Bellows family mansion which also subsequently serves as their small town’s de-facto haunted house. The story behind the house is that the family that lived there had a child who was very deformed and of whom they weren’t exactly the most proud of, and so they chose to keep her away from the public eye in a hidden room somewhere in the house. Since then any kid that has even an ounce of purported courage is dared to approach the house and stand outside the house to try and see if the deformed child’s ghost would whisper to them a story or 2 with the stories then saying that if she told you a story, then you would soon after die a most gruesome and painful death. Yet after surviving an assault by a pack of bullying fellow students, this group of young people not only find the child’s room, but also the book of spooky stories from the legends. Of course being young, stupid, and not knowing any better, they choose to take the volume with them when they leave only to quickly and horrifically discover that perhaps the deformed child isn’t quite done telling new stories after all…..
Now, when coupled together with the absolutely chilling in the best way possible illustrations of an artist by the name of Stephen Gammell, I feel that these short spooky stories were absolutely wonderful because of the frightening and downright chilling imagery they have managed to evoke in countless kids, including this one, over the years. Suffice it to say then that the most brilliant decision that the creative team behind this film chooses to do is just take the experience of reading these stories late at night with a flashlight while constantly looking over your shoulder with every creak or shudder in your house and just bring that as much as possible on to the screen. Indeed without going too far down the spoiler-filled rabbit hole, I can definitely tell you that there are designs in this movie that are simply just taken straight from the illustrations in the books and placed in a real-world setting, and I definitely feel that the creative team really has chosen some of the most chilling material from the books to bring to life especially for those of you who suffer from arachnophobia. Just a small little hint for you movie goers as to one avenue that this movie chooses to go down…
Now I feel it should also be said that all of the above doesn’t mean that this film adaptation doesn’t bring anything creative of its own to the table; quite the opposite actually. Indeed that is because not only is the overarching narrative that this film uses as both a framework and a catalyst of sorts actually in equal measure intriguing and chilling, but because the original stories were both short and also didn’t really at times give a lot in regards to specifics, this definitely works in the film’s favor because it means the movie can now expand upon those details in a way that is both respectful to the material, but also plenty scary on its own. For example in the story “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” the monster at the chilling heart of the story is a severed head that has come to life, and which comes rolling down a chimney to haunt and terrorize the unnamed teller of the tale. In the hands of this film’s creative team however this has now been horrifically transformed into a literally twisted monster that can terrifyingly disassemble and reassemble itself at will, and that is just one example of where the creative team is able to find significant leeway in these timeless narratives and then uses it to bring these monsters to life in a way that is both terrifying yet engaging at the same time.
Yet it is also in my honest opinion, I also feel that within the craftsmanship of the film itself, there is a specific regard and consideration that this film has towards just how mature the target demographic really truly can be. Indeed while this fact is easily the most present when it comes to the atmosphere that this film chooses to present and showcase, it is also quite prevalent in this film’s story. Indeed it goes without saying, but there are quite a few films in this particular realm of movie-making that really lack a specific courage that due to it being nonexistent, a lot of plot points are created that totally undermine and water down whatever stakes exist in these movies. Suffice it to say this is a puddle of quicksand that this particular film manages to avoid altogether, and as a result, is most definitely a more terrific film than it already is due to that. Indeed I can honestly say this is a cinematic experience which really wants you to bond with the characters in this world, and as a result you actually find yourself concerned for them when they find themselves faced with the very frightening and very real possible consequences in this film.
Of course there is an extra positive to be found in that. This would be the caveat that this film also manages to be quite the stage for several new up-and-comers to show that they have what it takes to truly shine. This of course starts with movie lead Zoe Colletti who does a wonderful job of contributing a very relatable and very human mix of both pathos as well as inner strength to the role of Stella. Indeed Stella is a very intriguing character because although she does possess quite the baggage from her past that causes her grief and inner turmoil and although she does, to be fair, cause the vast majority of the shenanigans in the film to go down, is still a very likable and very three-dimensional character that you can’t help but root for by the end of the film. I also feel that Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur all do absolutely wonderful work and they most assuredly are genuine stars-in-the-making as the former really manages to bring a charm that is by equal measure both tough around the edges yet also unruly and the latter are absolutely amazing in their terrific yet also genuine turns as Stella’s 2 best friends.
All in all I feel it is definitely a safe bet to let you know that this particular adaptation is one that has been in the development stage of filmmaking due to numerous people spending all that time really trying desperately to find a creative way to really bring this highly treasured work to life in a way that is both unique yet a loving tribute. Suffice it to say the time it took was time that was very well spent. This is because not only is this adaptation enough to make your skin crawl and your spine shiver as a stand-alone film, but it’s obvious by the time the end credits start to roll that there could be more stories told within this particular universe and I hope the studio cashes in on that hook, line, and sinker. Indeed while this is most definitely not a scary movie for either very young kids, kids who scare easily, or both this is a film which is wisely aware of this fact. To that end this is a film which makes the wise decision to go after both older kids as well as every single person who knows these stories by heart. Trust me when I say that those groups will most definitely not be disappointed. On a scale of 1-5 I give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a solid 3.5 out of 5.