Set in 1968, 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' focuses on a group of misfit teenagers (is there any other kind?) who find a mysterious and macabre book of scary stories in an infamously haunted house. After taking it home, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) discovers that horrifying new stories are starting to appear in the book and playing out in real time to people she knows...
'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' was originally an anthology of short stories, so the framing device of the teens discovering the book, and subsequently becoming characters within it, is original to the film. It's a solid structure, if somewhat derivative, but good performances from the ensemble make this plotline compelling enough to see it through. Colletti, who had a small role in 'Wildlife' earlier this year, gives a strong lead turn as Stella, while Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur as her BFFs have great timing, hitting the beats for their jokes and jump-scares equally well.
The character design is commendable, much of which is based on the creepy illustrations from the original books by Stephen Gammell, which are worth looking up...but maybe during daylight hours. The Jangly Man, a gurning crab-walking fiend who can separate, contort and reassemble his body parts at will, is particularly intense, chasing down a character still spooked by his brother returning from Vietnam 'in pieces.'
As creepy as he is, there is a sense of restraint, and what lets 'Scary Stories' down is the muddled tone throughout. It's slightly too intense and violent for kids, with director Øvredal effectively building tension before showing some very young-looking teenagers meeting variously grisly ends. But it's also a little too slight and immature to hit the heights of a full-blown horror movie for adults. The thematic throughline about the ability for stories to hurt and heal in turn, and the power in being able to control or challenge a dominant narrative, has a prescriptive and didactic quality to it, that summation of the moral of the story familiar from many a fairytale fable. Having the benefit of hindsight with regards to Nixon's election, the Vietnam War, and other real-world horrors that pervade the supernatural shocks on show adds to this in a somewhat deflating way.
'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' has its moments: the scares are fun but familiar, and it pleasingly features some creepy creatures, but the film ultimately loses sight of its audience, and can't decide how much it wants to show or tell us. Perhaps that's why the title advises keeping the lights off.