Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark represents a valuable commodity in our current film landscape. Based on the children’s book by Alvin Schwartz, the film aims to establish a stake in the market for a lighter brand of horror aimed at young teens. The Conjuring universe has already shown the monetary potential of this avenue, but some of the lesser installments of that franchise also display the pitfalls of basing a multitude of films on underdeveloped villains. Unfortunately, Scary Stories can’t escape this narrative banality either, putting their cast of likable protagonists against obstacles that are visually impressive but emotionally distant.
The film centers around a trio of high schoolers in 1968. There’s the goth movie nerd Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), sarcastic dork Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Austin Zajur as Chuck – a complete weirdo, who seems to be doing some manic Shia LaBeouf impression. While running away from a couple of repulsive bullies on Halloween night, they end up crossing paths with the stoic Ramone (Michael Garza). He’s a draft defector, passing through this sleepy small town. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the character is often met with racist comments or allusions to his defection, the mileage varying on how much it advances the Ramone’s arc.
The four characters’ excursion leads them to a haunted house, once owned by the family that founded their town. Inside, Stella finds a book of scary tales, which belonged to Sarah Bellows. Sarah used to live in this house, and Stella eventually discovers that they are both social outcasts, compelling her to relate to the deceased writer. But that doesn’t prevent the cursed book in her posession from having a grim impact on her and her friends.
What Scary Stories has in it’s favor is a host of impressive visual effects. From practical effects to CGI, mixed with terrific camera work, the nightmarish images are not only convincing but visually splendid without sacrificing their inherent creepiness. The problem is there isn’t much in the way of connection, thrills, and certainly not fear in seeing these depictions. What this boils down to is getting the audience to care about the central conflict, which revolves around Sarah Bellow’s tragic backstory – it just isn’t scary or personal enough.
In horror, what is often overlooked is the motive that sets everything in motion. Sometimes no motive (Halloween) can be frightening. In other films, a personal connection with the targets (A Nightmare on Elm Street) or an obstacle that amplifies real world fears (It Follows) is what does the trick. Scary Stories really does none of those, as the character that’s haunting our protagonists is an unknowable figment with no relevant development. And the big conspiracy surrounding the Bellows family and their misdeeds on the town seems to fit more as a scheme from a Bond villain rather than the antagonist of a thriller.
There are attempts to ground the story in personal stakes. Stella does hold empathy for Sarah, but it is ultimately shallow due to a lack of dramatization. Meanwhile, much is made about Ramone’s backstory and history with his brother, but it too fails to hit home as we barely know or relate to this character.
There’s currently no shortage of great work in the horror genre. From the theater to the small screen, it seems that multiple studios and streaming services have put time into creating better content for one of our most enduring genres. So it’s even more noticeable when a film arrives that hits all the visual cues, but fails to deliver stakes that you care about. This is one film where the clips of certain death scenes and transformations will be worth watching on YouTube. But there isn’t much incentive to spend 2 hours consuming so many empty calories.