Some stories heal; some stories hurt. But in the quaint town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, some stories are written by vengeful Victorian-era ghosts who have it out for just about everyone. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” the newest family-friendly piece directed by André Øvredal, follows the murky exploits of a ragtag group of high school students as they uncover a decades-old journal filled with terrifying tales.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” centers around a quirky young lady named Stella Nicholls (Zoe Colletti), a big fan of both the creepy and the crawly. A writer herself, Stella conjures up stories alongside her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). On a night of Halloween shenanigans, our protagonists meet the nomadic and charming Ramón Morales (Michael Garza) in the mess of a drive-in movie theater parking lot.
When a stunt against local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) goes awry, the whole group ends up trapped in the basement of a notoriously haunted house. But as Stella knows all the ins and outs of the town’s horror scene, she gets curious while browsing the bookshelves lining what was once the bedroom of the infamous Sarah Bellows, a girl whose entire life turned into a plethora of scary stories. This series of events sets the tone for the rest of the film, as the mysterious journal plays a hefty role in wreaking havoc on the adolescents of Mill Valley.
With old-school bewitchery and an autumnal aura, the film creates a cozy environment for viewers watching at the end of the scorching summer months. It accomplishes the dual goal of giving the audience something to look forward to and issuing a warning against traversing the basements of abandoned buildings.
It’s not just the season that provides a kind of aesthetic appeal, but also the era. Excerpts from television broadcasts are peppered throughout scenes, alluding to a late-1960s setting. With this decade, however, comes the racial tension that populated the 1960s. This racism especially affects Morales. From being labeled with an anti-Mexican slur by Tommy to dealing with car vandalism and fearing help from the police throughout his nightmarish adventure, it seems as though Morales’ daily struggles don’t simply stem from folklore.
If there’s one thing the journal does best, it’s breathing life into the characters’ worst fears. In the case of Morales, who took up the fake surname “Rodriguez” to dodge the Vietnam War draft, these anxieties take the form of a disassembled monster intermittently yelling, “Coward!”
It isn’t random creatures that come for the Mill Valley gang, but rather physical representations of the group’s internal torments, all under the control of Sarah Bellows’ pen as she scrawls the fates of the children in the pages of her journal. As Stella says, “You don’t read the book — the book reads you.”
Between well-animated corpses, ominous hospital design and a scene that mirrors a Dr. Pimple Popper video from the fiery depths of hell, the story is visually haunting and uncomfortable. And if scary movies don’t sound like the go-to, no fear! This movie, contrary to the title, isn’t particularly scary (except, perhaps, for 11-year-olds). Aside from a few jump scares and eerie concepts, this is a great intro to scary movies for even the faintest of heart.
Combine a few shrieks, a dash of red-washed lighting and a book to tell you what you’re really scared of to produce “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Considering how firmly the film’s last few scenes allude to a sequel, this is almost surely not the last audiences will see of this upcoming franchise. Stella still has the book, and this film ultimately still has a grip on the nostalgic Halloween movies we all know and love.