Film Review Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

In this image released by CBS Films, Austin Zajur as Chuck Steinberg appears in the film, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” to be released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.

When I was a kid, I read a story about a girl with a blemish on her face. The mark keeps growing, becoming redder and redder until eventually the spot bursts and hundreds of baby spiders stream out.

It’s been more than 20 years (at least) since I read that story; and, to this day, I still get the heebie-jeebies when I think about it. It was a short story called “The Red Spot,” and it was in a collection titled “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz. The first volume came out in 1981, the second in 1984 and the third — which featured “The Red Spot” — came out in 1991.

When I was a kid, we all loved those books, and they were definitely creepy, although I don’t believe my friends and I ever read them to each other in the dark. Two stories stuck with me. One was “The Red Spot,” and the other was a story called “High Beams.” That one featured a tailgating driver who terrified another by using his bright lights and even ramming her car a few times as she frantically tried to speed away. Come to find out, there was a murderer in the back seat, and each time he raised up to grab her Mr. Bright Lights flashed his high beams to make him retreat.

To this day, spider bites terrify me, and I often check my back seat to make sure there’s not a maniac back there.

Sure, I was impressionable, but those stories were so, so good. It’s why a lot of us became super excited when a film adaptation was being made, and the legendary Guillermo del Toro was going to produce it.

Holy. Crunch. Y’all.

The first trailers had me a bit worried that I wasn’t going to be able to handle it. While I loved scary stories as a kid, the adult me isn’t really a huge fan of being terrified. And, the trailer looked pretty creepy.

There, on the big screen, was Harold the killer scarecrow, the corpse looking for her severed big toe and, of course, the red spot. They were creepy and seemed larger than life. I was instantly transported back to childhood, and it was (mostly) glorious.

The film ties all these random stories together beautifully. It’s 1968, and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) are gearing up for the last Halloween they’ll spend together. They’re too old to trick or treat, and they aren’t youngsters anymore. The draft is calling young men to Vietnam daily, and life, as they know it, could change at any minute.

It does change, when they pull a prank on teenage bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), giving him a flaming bag of poo. In trying to get away from Tommy and his friends, Stella and Co. make the acquaintance of a young Hispanic man named Ramone (Michael Garza), a mysterious young man who isn’t really welcomed into town because of the color of his skin.

But, Stella and her friends draw Ramone into their escape plan, unwittingly leading him into something much larger when the group visits the Bellows mansion, which is haunted. Stella steals Sarah Bellows’ (Kathleen Pollard) book of stories, dooming everyone in the house that night to become the victim of a twisted horror tale.

Like Chuck’s older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), who has horrible taste and was on a date with Tommy when he ended up with flaming poo in his lap. Tommy is a bully and a jackass who terrorizes everyone. Harold, a scarecrow who often falls victim to Tommy’s bat, gets his revenge. Ruth, who’s overly concerned with her looks, is the one who falls prey to the spider bite and hundreds of spider babies. (I seriously just got goosebumps thinking about it. Blech.)

Stella and her friends must race against the clock to figure out how to stop Sarah before they’re all sucked into the nightmarish reality she’s created in the pages of her book.

“Scary Stories” is only PG-13, so don’t expect super gruesome gore or frights. Just as those story collections were a gateway for children to enter into the world of horror, André Øvredal’s horror film is just scary enough to delight adults but tame enough to not terrify young people. This isn’t “The Shining,” but it’s not “Goosebumps” either.

The acting is mostly solid — it’s a bit overdone at times — and the story’s mystery keeps you engaged. Plus, del Toro is producing the film, and you can feel little bits of his influence throughout.

Sure, there are bits of heavy-handed melodrama, but this is still a young adult horror film, so what do you expect?

The thing I think I like best about the film is it truly feels like the stories I read as a kid. The same vibe is there. Those stories weren’t heart-racing scream factories. They were slow burns that kept you on the edge of your seat as you wondered what was going to happen next. Your breath caught a bit with each flash of the high beams or each twitch of the red spot. They were tense and stressful and absolutely thrilling.

The film adaptation has much of the same feel. It’s based on the books’ stories, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen. But, we can’t wait to find out. At the end of the day, I didn’t know I needed this film when I was kid, but it was well worth the wait.

Amanda Greever is a former editor, designer and writer at The Daily Times. She now works in public relations. Contact her at amandagreever@gmail.com.

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