Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

After Midsommar‘s whacked-out frenzy, which basically took my brain apart and incorrectly put it back together, it’s almost a treat to watch the old-fashioned Scooby Doo shenanigans unfold in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.    Side note:  Is it possible to describe something as “decent” and not have it sound like backhanded praise?   I mean, the acting, writing, and pace of this film are all, you know…decent.  It’s a fluffy little horror soufflé that excels at being adequate until the final act, when the whole thing collapses into a sugary mound of disappointment.

Adapted from the books by Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories takes us back to the tumultuous autumn of 1968.  In a sleepy Pennsylvania town, the children of Nixon’s Silent Majority spend their Halloween either collecting candy or steaming up windows at the local drive-in.  We focus on three dweebish teens:  Stella (Zoe Colletti) is a Fangoria fangirl, while Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) function as her dutiful entourage. The trio exacts vengeance on the school bully (Austin Abrams) by chucking a bag of turds into his passing car.  A chase ensues, until the nerds get rescued by Ramón (Michael Garza), a young drifter whose friendly demeanor hides more than a few secrets.

With the bullies safely behind them, the gang takes Ramón to the local Twilight Zone mansion.  It seems the long-ago occupants of this hell-house were once a powerful presence in the town.  For all their riches, the family concealed something dark from the public:  Sarah, one of their children, was a deformed, angry sorceress who played some part in the entire clan eventually vanishing into thin air.  As a horror devotee, Stella is enrapt by a book of stories that Sarah penned as a prisoner in her room.  After a few jump scares, our heroes hurry home, only to find that the book is slowly filling with new scary stories, this time involving Stella and her crew.  This puts our Scooby Gang in a race against time:  Can they stop Sarah before she finishes her stories?

Much of what follows makes for a perfectly entertaining horror movie.  The story goes where you suspect it will, but it gets you there in style.  Director André Øvredal and producer-Svengali Guillermo del Toro do a great job of recreating the late 60s and covering it in a Spielbergian sheen.  Most of the actors don’t have a lot to do, other than scream and flail about, but they all do that well enough.  Only Dean Norris–who set the screen ablaze in Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias”–gets wasted as Stella’s lunkhead dad.

Scary’s biggest misstep occurs in its final scenes.  The story’s resolution seems completely underwhelming.  One character, in particular, is given a bummer of a send-off.  Even worse, the filmmakers land on a pet peeve of mine by setting up a potential sequel that nobody’s asking for.  It’s a frustrating triple bogey for a movie that had otherwise parred its way through an unchallenging cinematic course of horror.

108 min.  PG-13.

Author: Todd Wofford

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