‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ isn’t that scary and isn’t that good, either

‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’

Rated PG-13: Terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithet and brief sexual references.
Playing at: Alamo Drafthouse, Premiere Cinemas, Cinemark’s Tinseltown 17 and Cinemark’s Movies 16.
Credits: Directed by Andre Ovredal. Screenplay by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman and Guillermo del Toro; from a story by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton; inspired by a book by Alvin Schwartz. Music by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich. Cinematography by Roman Osin. Edited by Patrick Larsgaard.
Stars: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams and Kathleen Pollard.

Bill’s rating: Three of five stars

I had not previously been introduced to the series of three “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books of short horror stories, published between 1981 and 1991 and written by Alvin Schwartz, with creepier illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Each volume includes at least 25 stories, sometimes more, usually aimed at younger readers.

Only a half-dozen stories are brought to life in this film, although a door is left open for more via sequels.

I walked in expecting an anthology, a series of different and individual scary stories edited together somewhat like the “Creepshow” franchise from the ‘80s.

Instead, this new movie, produced by horror veteran Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andre Ovredal, takes those six stories and happenings invented by Schwartz and distributes them among the same number of specific characters sharing an overall, enveloping tale.

For reasons unknown – other than below-the-surface horrors of governmental corruption and war – the entire film is set in 1968, with background footage focused on ongoing news from Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s presidential victory run.

There also is one out-of-town character, the tough-but-nice Ramon (played by Michael Garza), stranded on Halloween night among some racist citizens. That would include the police chief (Gil Bellows), not at all happy about this young visitor’s draft dodger status.

The film opens with Tommy (Austin Abrams), the high school’s leather-jacketed athletic star and bully, leading his crew of followers in increasingly violent bullying sessions against a trio of high school outsiders/nerds. Yet these three have the guts to provide Tommy with a sack of flaming payback.

In truth, the film’s star is Zoe Margaret Colletti as depressed and guilt-ridden Stella, living in a one-parent home and sharing her love of scary movies, magazines and stories with friends. Her two best buds are the outgoing Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Austin Zajur as Chuck, who prefers staying far away from the spiritual or occult.

Before the night is over, Auggie’s sister, Ruth, also may be taunted by “The Red Spot.”

As for spoilers, I will just tease that not every principal cited above survives.

Then again, be aware that, while the film references scary stories, one doubts these particular “Scary Stories” could keep anyone older than 14 awake at night.

The film is rated PG-13, and more hard-core horror fans will grade it down for its lack of gore or adult scares.

Indeed, a number of streaming cable television series provide eerier material; so do several usually R-rated attempts at feature horror. For that matter, even director Robert Wise’s G-rated, black-and-white “The Haunting,” a 1963 movie with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, likely jolts the heart more.

You’ve read the negatives. Now let me explain why I enjoyed “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

I did knock at least a half star off the film’s final rating for the lack of any smooth reasoning behind its 1968 wartime reminders.

The fact remains: Not enough films (perhaps “It” and “Stranger Things”) provide younger viewers with identifiable characters introducing horrific cinema.

Ovredal lets us know a younger generation may battle daily fears (think dating, complexion, self-confidence) even as they do not recognize bravery exhibited in other ways.

While these stories on their own likely won’t give every young teenager nightmares, a few CGI monsters and ghosts, inspired by Gammell’s illustrations, just might.

I smiled and enjoyed one character’s rather predictable face-off with a scarecrow called Harold but, for this lover of old horror films, the temperature didn’t drop and the film did not demand interest, until infatuated Stella inquires of brand new friend Ramon, “Hey, do you want to see a haunted house?”

That question is the turning point.

Because Ramon is ready for anything … and oh yeah, the house really is haunted.

The youngsters know a lot about the Bellows family, which founded the small town, lived together in a mansion and survived interrogation when many residents, mostly children, died.  Eldest daughter Sarah Bellows questioned mercury filling water supplies from the family’s paper mill.

Stella and her friends know the Bellows patriarch had Sarah’s face painted over, removed from family portraits. Even worse, she reportedly was imprisoned and allowed to speak with no one.

Stella may feel a kinship of sorts because she writes stories, and legend has it that Sarah did, too.

In fact, that may be why Stella borrows Sarah’s ancient book of stories when found on a shelf in a mysterious room on that Halloween night so long after her death.

Unknown until later is the torture which drove Sarah mad … making true the rumor that, when Sarah “writes” a new story for anyone, that person may never hear another.

As characters disappear, Stella’s attempts to return Sarah’s book prove fruitless.

Too much is predictable, and performances vary in quality. Still, Ovredal’s direction of these youngsters on the run is at times clever; viewers also have fun with multiple versions of The Pale Woman, not to mention a Jangley Man, who arrives when least expected with not-yet-connected body parts.

Unfortunately, an acne-inspired opening for spiders is but a weak imitation of E.G. Marshall’s introduction to a roach invasion, the closing story in George Romero’s 1980 “Creepshow.”

In short, the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place. But writing and directorial decisions often are uneven. Horror fans, even younger ones being recruited, deserved more.

Gage’s rating: Two of five stars

Summer has not been kind. Most summer films have disappointed. With that in mind, I was hopeful “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” would be a pleasant surprise.

What can I say? Anyone expecting truly scary stories is in for a rude awakening.

As it turns out, these stories are not frightening, or even involving; endings are especially inconsistent. Most stories lack creativity, a sole exception being an early character named Tommy’s interaction with Harold, the scarecrow.

Visuals in the form of monsters often are great – probably because the movie was produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, who introduced notable monsters in his past stories.

I hoped these monsters would play a bigger part in the story. They don’t.

Monsters do supply some creepy feelings, but believability and effectiveness of characters are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Not one – including main characters Stella (played by Zoe Margaret Colletti) and Ramón (Michael Garza), sidekicks Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), and minor characters Tommy (Austin Abrams) and Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) – makes a positive impression.

I never became attached to any of these bland, boring characters, to the point I did not care if they survived.

I do have mixed feelings regarding the main story – not the separate scary stories within – about the ghost of Sarah Bellows.

On one hand, Sarah introduces a necessary uneasy feeling. On the other hand, her story is inconsistent. The director also makes obvious decisions, such as allowing shadows to help Stella “see” the ghost.

Other than that, little stands out. The pacing is slow, “scares” are below average at best and monsters I liked can only make up for so much. They are not on screen that long.

I could appreciate the overall concept, but execution was not good. This should have been better.

Meanwhile, I noticed movie posters on at least one theater’s walls seem to advertise probably 90 percent sequels and remakes. That is disheartening.

A fun original movie would be nice, but “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is ruined by uninteresting characters.

Some of the visual effects impressed, but could not save the movie.