Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is well-directed and visually impressive with creature effects that are genuinely unsettling, as we might expect from director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) and producer Guillermo del Toro. However, the script ultimately can't tackle all of the concepts it introduces, making the sequences without any monsters drag in comparison.
Based on Alvin Schwartz's beloved series of children's books, Scary Stories is set in 1968, in a small town in Pennsylvania, and centers on horror story-loving outcast Stella (Zoe Colletti). With her two friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), and charming young man drifter Ramón (Michael Garza), Stella hides from bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) inside the abandoned, and seemingly haunted, Bellows House. There, they discover a secret room that belonged to local urban legend Sarah Bellum (Kathleen Pollard), believed to be a witch who murdered children almost a hundred years earlier. Finding her book of scary stories, Stella accidentally reawakens the spirit of Sarah and unleashes her back onto the town. New stories appear in the book written in blood, centering around the teens and dooming them to terrifying ends.
Director Øvredal further proves himself a skilled filmmaker with Scary Stories, working with Del Toro to make each scene of horror feel unique yet connected through a common style. When the film gets the opportunity to lean into the scary stories, it shines. Each sequence in which a monster tries to chase down one of the teens is filmed with a different style of horror in mind; for instance, slowly building suspense in the case of the Toe Monster, and frantic terror with the Smiling Lady.
At times, the film relies too much on jump-scares to ratchet up the tension. However, those moments then lead to sequences in which something like the Jangley Man pulls himself apart to reach his targets, laughing the whole time. Scary Stories lacks virtually any real gore, yet is still more frightening than the majority of horror films. The creature work is stellar and helps alleviate some of the repetitive "and suddenly there's the monster!" nature of many scenes. Scary Stories especially works when it finds some new tweak on a genre convention, such as the unnerving ways in which some victims are dispatched -- but not with gore or hidden in shadows, mind you.
If there's anything that really weighs down the film, it's the script by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman (Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu). The sequences that take place through town aren't nearly as inspired as the more horrific moments, resulting in unfortunate, and abrupt, stops in momentum. The script is able to make the scary scenes believable, but whenever it shifts to the more human elements, it flounders. There are plenty of interesting concepts, such as Stella's abandonment issues or Ramón's fears of the conflict in Vietnam, but the film never really explores them.
The cast does the best with what it's been given, adjusting well to the times and setting. The actors are effective in sequences where they're under threat from some ghastly ghoul, but less so in the more human moments. That may be because Øvredal is far more invested in the titular scary stories, or that the script doesn't really know what to do with them. None is a bad performer, however, with Garza and Colletti especially standing out in what are nominally the lead roles. What deeper material they do get, they sink their teeth into and deliver strong scenes. It's just a shame the rest of the script couldn't find more places for them to go all out like that.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is competently made and includes some of the year's best horror creatures. But the film is too focused on being a set of scary stories instead of elevating itself beyond that. There's potential to do so, especially with the film's commentary on how sending young people to die in faraway wars might as well be writing their names in a book of the dead. But it never reaches that point. It's still a solid horror film that will surely scare audiences, but it could have been so much more.
Directed by André Øvredal from a script by by Guillermo del Toro, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark stars Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Javier Botet and Lorraine Toussaint.