Considering how often kids in movies are put in peril – or are the cause of peril – it’s odd how rarely entertainment is specifically made to scare children. Stranger Things isn’t exactly “horror,” and despite The Losers Club of young clown terror victims in IT, the film is decidedly not for children. So it’s refreshing that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark actually attempts to scare the crap out of a younger audience, and for the most part, proves that an R rating isn’t needed to freak out both kids and adults.
Like the recent Goosebumps series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark decides to weave several of the stories from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories series into one narrative. In Scary Stories, these are the tales of Sarah Bellows, a young girl who has been trapped by her family in the basement. She wrote her stories in blood in a book that has been kept in her locked room for decades, and the family home has become a legend to the locals. But on Halloween in 1968, a group of kids, led by horror fan and hopeful writer Stella (Zoe Colletti), discover Sarah’s book. Stella takes the book home, but soon realizes that the book is writing new stories in blood about the group that went into the Bellows’ home. With every new story, another kid ends up missing, and it’s up to Stella and the remaining kids how to stop Sarah’s book of horrors.
But the real point of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is to bring the tales of Schwartz’s stories to life, and considering that director André Øverdal, along with writers Dan and Kevin Hageman, are working under PG-13 restrictions, there are some genuinely eerie scares for both kids and adults. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark does rely on jump scares more than it should, and are often set up in way to let the audience brace themselves. But when Scary Stories plays in slow-moving dread, the fear is effective. Several of the stories focus on a character being chased by some monster that they can’t shake, or a situation that builds to an awful conclusion, and the film truly feels like a nightmare come to life.
As is often the case with films that try to combine a bunch of disparate stories into one tale, the plot can become a bit too much for its own good. In addition to dealing with monsters attempting to kill the protagonists, the script also tries to infuse the Vietnam War, Nixon’s election, and the town’s racism all into this story as well. Scary Stories’ biggest missed opportunity comes from how these stories relate to their individual victims. A character will mention that the terror coming after them is based on something they heard as a child, but that’s all that is done with this information, possibly because such connections might be seen as too It-ish.
While Scary Stories does stuff too much into its story, and doesn’t do enough to explain why each character is getting this particular fate, what matters most is that Scary Stories is, in fact, scary. It’s genuinely impressive how dedicated Scary Stories is to actually scaring the shit out of its PG-13 audience, with everything from lumbering scarecrows to arachnophobia. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark proves that a PG-13 rating isn’t a crutch. It’s an opportunity to scare with inventiveness.