Director André Øvredal
Screenplay Dan and Kevin Hagerman based on the books by Alvin Schwartz
Starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur
If one sees Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, it helps to be with the right audience. My two companions were my daughter El, 12 and her friend A, 13. El had read the books in school, and therefore was ready for each of the different stories we would see. A, a horror viewer with experience commensurate to her age, had not read the books.
Scary, this film is. Just not too scary. It is original, when compared against most horror one sees these days. While somewhat faithful to its source material, there is not one boogeyman repeated ad nauseam. It is the stuff of gentle nightmares. Adults haven’t thought of these types of scares for years. Kids probably thought of them in the last week.
The premise is simple. In 1968, a trio of friends and one friendly stranger find a book in a spooky mansion on the edge of town. There are stories in the book, but it’s not filled completely. There are some blank pages in the end. Once the pages start filling with new stories, written in fresh blood, people start to go missing in the town, one by one.
Their leader Stella (Colletti) pieces together the mysterious events with the help of Ramón (Garza) and her friends Augie and Chuck (played by Rush and Zajur). Everything leads to the original residents of the home, the Bellows family. In particular, their daughter, Sarah.
Given that Del Toro is producing, the film has the feel of authenticity many films of the genre lack. Øvredal does a good job walking the line between gore and predictability. We know what has to happen. We just don’t know how it will happen.
Leaving it in 1968 and keeping the effects to a minimum help create a film that concentrates more on mood and enough character development to make us care a little bit about people we’ve never seen before the story begins.
The two I was with enjoyed it with no amount of cynicism someone older might acquire with a larger history of horror films. If they weren’t exactly scared, they were creeped out. There are a few jump scares, a few inevitable stalkings, an exorcism and and other things that go bump in the night. None of these are overdone, and it makes each more effective.
Two versions of Season of the Witch add to the mood. Donovan’s creepy original starts the film. Lana Del Ray ends the it nearly as effectively.
No one will claim this is a masterpiece, but few will leave the film disappointed.
(***1/2 out of *****)