Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.
Horror movies that can be watched by the younger crowd are tough genre. You have to walk a very fine line between being too scary and not being scary enough. There has to be something actually at stake in the story, which means that we’re going to have to probably have some people killed, but you also don’t want it to be too gory. You want scares, but not specifically nightmares. It should be fun, but not specifically funny. A movie like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark attempts to walk that fine line, giving us a series of mini stories as part of an overarching tale that seems to hit right about at the level of a good campfire tale.
The movie takes place on and after Halloween in 1968 in a small town in Pennsylvania. Like lots of small towns, this one has a past history that is unsavory in parts and has a founding family with dark secrets. In this case, the founding family was the Bellows, and daughter Sarah Bellows has a number of unsavory legends surrounding her, most dealing with child murder. On this Halloween, a group of nerdy kids including Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), August (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajar) attempt to get back at their bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams). It happens that their bully is on a date with Chuck’s sister, Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn).
Their escape from Tommy leads the trio to befriend a drifter roughly their own age named Ramon (Michael Garza). Eventually, sort of as a dare, they wind up at the abandoned Bellows house. While inside, Chuck has a disturbing experience in seeing a pale woman while Stella and Ramon find the room where Sarah was held by her family. They also find Sarah’s book where she is alleged to have written stories in blood. Eventually, Tommy tracks them to the house, tosses Ruth inside and locks them in. They get out, find Ramon’s car vandalized, and otherwise seem little scarred for their experiences.
But, it seems the book is still active. While in Stella’s possession, the book starts to essentially create new stories that write themselves. Worse, the new stories have the names of the people who were at the house on Halloween in them. The first story that appears is about Tommy and involves the family scarecrow more or less coming to life and turning Tommy into his replacement. While we see this happen, Stella and her friends do not. However, Tommy has suddenly disappeared, and the scarecrow in his family’s farm is suddenly wearing the clothing Tommy was the night before.
Each day, a new story shows up, and each day someone disappears. Augie, left home alone, is the next to be featured in a story in the book and meet his fate, followed by Ruth. Worse, Stella attempts to return the book to the house but finds it back in her possession. She attempts to burn it, but the book is undamaged. Even tearing out a page once the story starts writing doesn’t stop the story from being written.
What Stella, Chuck, and Ramon realize is that they need to discover the actual history of Sarah Bellows, and they need to do so as quickly as possible, since every day someone seems to disappear. Hospital records, old townspeople who knew her, and anything else they can think of become their targets as time starts to run out on them.
Where Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark succeeds is that it’s the right level of horror for the target audience. There’s enough of a scare here for it to be meaningful without it being something too upsetting. But it’s also a step above funhouse scares or rollercoaster rides. There’s something real at stake here for these characters.
The biggest disappointment, at least for me, are the stories being told. I realize that film is a visual medium, but the actual written stories we get are short and not very interesting. As the stories play out, they are of varying quality. Tommy’s is decent and Ruth’s is fantastic, while Augie’s isn’t that interesting. The resolution of another story is just…odd, while yet another doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me.
I enjoyed this for what it was. It’s fun, and for the right audience, it’s potentially great, but in truth, I’m not the right audience.
Why to watch Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: It’s campfire story level fun.
Why not to watch: The stories themselves need more detail.