Though Alvin Schwartz’s books were published between 1981 and 1991 and had timeless settings, the movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is set in 1968 — at Halloween, specifically, which means it’s also a few days before the election of Richard Nixon. Something wicked this way comes indeed. There’s some socio-political subtext that makes the setting appropriate for the current moment (at the end of a turbulent decade, a nation examines itself and its thirst for macabre stories), but mostly it’s just spooky, malevolent fun.
Shepherded through a lengthy development process by Guillermo del Toro and ultimately directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter), this teen-targeted chiller is not an anthology like you’d expect from a movie based on a collection of short stories, but a single narrative in which the stories happen to the characters. On a suburban Halloween night, platonic teen pals Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur), along with enigmatic new kid Ramon (Michael Garza), investigate a spooky old house where they find a book of eerie stories handwritten by a turn-of-the-last-century madwoman. Then, scrawled by an unseen hand, new stories start appearing on the diary’s blank pages that are not fiction at all but true accounts of things that are occurring at that moment elsewhere in town. For example, we saw a letterman-jacketed bully (Austin Abrams) throw rocks at a scarecrow earlier; now the scarecrow takes its revenge.
A few incidents are along those lines — apt punishments for misdeeds — but most of the stories are more traditional campfire tales: a pimple on a girl’s cheek that turns out to be a nest of spiders; a pale, doughy woman literally from someone’s nightmares; a corpse that can reassemble its component parts; that sort of thing. All of the creatures are terrifically unsettling, and Øvredal taps into the frenzied logic of nightmares with unnerving accuracy. Unlike many PG-13 horror movies aimed at teenagers, people actually die in this one, and not always bloodlessly. A mid-level spookfest like this is good for viewers who aren’t ready for (or have no interest in) hardcore horror but who want more PG-13 bite than, say, Goosebumps. It’s Halloween funhouse horror, not check your closets/call your therapist/go back to church horror.