“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” actually makes you care about the fates of its characters, likable or venal. It has a way of treating even the gross-out bits, involving scarecrow transformation nastiness and the aftermath of a Cinerama Dome-sized spider bite, for real emotion and no little anguish. The movie’s good even when it goes in too many directions at once, because it gets the kids right.
It comes from a half-dozen short, sharp tales of woe — and “whoa!” — created by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated, with fabulous, sinister panache, by Stephen Gammell. The first volume was published in 1981, followed by two sequels. Since there’s no connective tissue in the original collections and the film is not a series of separate, “Twilight Zone”-model episodes, the project faced a daunting adaptation challenge. How to give ’em enough story in between the stories to make the thing hang together?
“Scary Stories” recalls the recent, massively popular Stephen King adaptation “It” (2017) in its attempt to provide a narrative spine, a creepy back story, an awful small-town secret and a reason for all the disappearances and unsolved murders in the Pennsylvania town of Mill Valley. Director André Ovredal (“Trollhunter,” “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) and screenwriters Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman cleverly stitch here and amalgamate there, working from the story cooked up by producer Guillermo del Toro and along with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan.
The protagonist is Stella, an emotionally isolated high school student coping with the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Stella and her pals Chuck and Augie get to know Ramon, new in town and instantly targeted as Not Their Kind by police and civilians alike. Ramon’s story is that he’s “following the harvest” and going where the work takes him. The TVs everywhere in “Scary Stories” flood us with images of the war in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon on the eve of his presidential election.
The new story material goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a cruelly treated woman, Sarah Bellows, who was locked up in the family mansion and spent her time spinning all sorts of horror stories. Sarah’s book is discovered by Stella when the kids investigate the abandoned mansion on Halloween. The stories in long-dead Sarah’s book directly implicate the 1968-era kids at the movie’s center, so that they take turns living out what’s being written, before their eyes, in blood-red ink.
As Stella, Zoe Colletti is terrific, but the rest of the cast is uneven. Along with Colletti, the real stars are the monsters, and the closer they hew to the Gammell illustrations, the better.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.