“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a new film based on three long-popular collections of ghost or horror tales. The first of the books was published in 1981, but author Alvin Schwartz would surely have acknowledged his debt to older fiction.
The movie version suffers from what seems to be the effects of budget constraints. It was made by horror director André Øvredal for CBS Films. The movie has TV-level sets and costumes. Its cast includes no stars of the big screen though moviemaker Guillermo del Toro was in on writing the screenplay.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a very dark movie to look at. And the sound recording is indifferent at best. What works in the film is its theme music, Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” wonderfully spooky and rousing 1960s fare.
But then the question is, does the movie give us a witch? That reference may not quite fit. And the movie’s treatment of history would be revisionist if it were clear at all in its details. Consider this: Election Day 1968 seems to have taken place the day after Halloween.
The movie is, despite all these quibbles, easy enough to watch. It isn’t as involving as scary movies often are — and what’s with the emphasis on pronunciation of the “t” in “often” in movies this summer? But “Scary Stories” does move along pretty well, and some of the stories recalled are at least as provocative as are “urban legends.”
Three teenaged friends have a plan for Halloween, or so the frame tale goes. They will attack the car of a mean letterman from their school when he drives it by to harass them during their annual trick-or-treat walk.
After the attack they flee, eventually sneaking into a drive-in theater (with two screens!). There they get sanctuary in the car of a boy named Ramon, who is moving around to avoid the draft.
The friends take Ramon to see the local Bellows mansion, a huge and derelict house. The letterman, who has a date with one of the friend’s sister, locks them in the house and leaves. A seemingly supernatural presence lets them out.
Ringleader Stella takes a handwritten book with her from the house. Despite attempts to take it back or destroy it, the book keeps reappearing. And every once in a while a new horror story featuring one of the movie’s characters begins to appear (written in blood) on one of the book’s pages.
For example, one is about a scarecrow, and we know that the letterman has one of those in his family’s cornfield. The story, the action from which we see dramatized, tells how the kid is chased around the rows of tall corn by the effigy and is then stuck on a pole to substitute for the scarecrow.
Each of the named characters gets a story written about them, and each in real life suffers what is described in the story. One hides under a bed and is pulled, apparently into a wall. He disappears. This is the film’s version of the story about the spook seeking its missing toe.
Another of the boys is trapped by a bloated spook who looks like the characters in Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are.” The kid is finally absorbed into the apparition. His sister develops a large pimple on her cheek. Out of it come an army of small insects. The experience leads to her hospitalization in a psych ward.
Ramon and Stella are locked in adjoining jail cells when a story begins being written in the book, a story about a monster made of self-directed parts. It can divide itself up to get through the bars and then reassemble to attack our heroes.
Hoping to intercede with the power in the haunted house before Ramon disappears, Stella rushes back there only to find her way into a time warp. Will she find a way to help Ramon, who stands in the same place she does, but in a different time frame?
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” ends with a set-up for a sequel. That’s pretty standard for a horror movie these days. But will we want a second cinematic chapter? Do we want to know what happens next to Stella?