Tell us a story, Sarah.
Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, circa 1968. In the fading shadow of a paper mill boom town, the legend of Sarah Bellows looms over Halloween. When a circle of friends hide out from bullies in the abandoned Bellows mansion, they discover the rooms where the legendary girl was hidden away from the world. Aspiring writer and horror lover Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) finds a storybook penned in red ink and signed as the property of ol’ Sarah herself. Unfortunately, many blank pages remain within, and when rage still needs an outlet, more scary stories are left to be told.
If the premise sounds familiar, it’s not your imagination. Based upon the three short-story anthologies of the same name written by Alvin Schwartz, the film version cribs from the R. L. Stine Goosebumps films by including elements of all of an author’s short stories into a wraparound arc. Produced by Guillermo del Toro (with additional screenplay credits) and directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe), this pre-Halloween creeper attempts to straddle the sweet spot, giving both kids and adults the heebie-jeebies while pulling back on the f-bombs and blood. Do these scary stories measure up, or does the effect dissipate like The House with a Clock in its Walls?
It’s hard to pin down so-called “kid-friendly horror,” usually because entries either talk down to their target age level or present useless adults acting more childish than the kids. Gore Verbinski’s remake The Ring demonstrated PG-13 doesn’t have to mean less dread; in the same way a low budget can spark creativity in film, elemental limitations can work in favor of more creative imagery. The idea of being trapped in a recurring nightmare, cut off from escape while doom slowly descends, is universal to all ages. While imperfect, André Øvredal leverages an impressive cast and serious subject matter into a shoehorned concept that happily exceeds its mandate and promises more to come.
The film’s secret weapon is Zoe Margaret Colletti, underplaying her part as Stella to become the central character and unlikely heroine to shoulder final-girl responsibility. While the kid-cast of Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur provide a convincing group of soon-to-be victims (like everyone in every A Nightmare on Elm Street movie), Zoe is equally convincing as both victim and protagonist, showing her turn organically and reaching up not only out of desperation but in taking power. If not for this essential ingredient, much of the film could be dismissed as an almost-ran of unrelated moments of coolness; it feels intentional rather than incidental.
At its core, its an old-fashioned ghost story with all the trimmings: an old haunted house, urban legends, and disturbing monsters… both human and inhuman. On the heels of cinematic remakes like Stephen King’s It and three seasons of “Stranger Things” on Netflix, audiences are used to hearing kids swear like sailors, and one can’t help but wonder how much better Scary Stories could have been allowed into R-rated territory. With the sequel to It a month out and more All Hallows Eve goodness on the way, this scary story is a tasty appetizer for things to come.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, brief sexual references, and one under-cooked toe.
Three skull recommendation out of four