Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is at its best when it stays true to its namesake by...y'know, telling scary stories in the dark (assuming you're watching in a movie theater, at least).
Based on the classic children's horror anthology of the same name, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows Stella (Zoe Colleti), a geeky teenager obsessed with horror stories, and her three friends, Auggie, Chuck, and Ramón. On Halloween night in 1968 (yes, this is a period piece), the group decides to go check out the supposedly haunted Bellows House (after goofing on town bully Tommy Milner by throwing actual human feces into his car).
There, Stella finds a book of scary stories that belonged to Sarah Bellows, the youngest daughter of the Bellows family who, as legend has it, murdered children in mysterious ways. Stella, being a smart girl who doesn't want to be victimized by a vengeful ghost, leaves the book where it is and returns to safety. Just kidding, she takes the book, which immediately starts self-writing new scary stories about her friends, each of which comes true. Now, if Stella wants to save her friends, she needs to solve the mystery of Sarah Bellow's death.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark can be divided into two core elements: the scary story scenes and every other part of the movie.
The scary story parts are very fun and genuinely pretty scary. Director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) really stretches his chops here, using claustrophobic camera work and expert timing to construct tense horror scenes, bringing the short stories from original anthology to life. Like any good anthology, these horror scenes practically stand on their own, with "The Pale Lady" being the top standout. "The Red Spot" is pretty grotesque, too.
Then there's everything else, and that's where Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark unfortunately starts to fall apart. The characters, the framework, and the narrative all feel like excess. Considering those are the bulk of the movie, watching it often feels like a slog through shoddy teen dialogue in order to reach the next anthology sketch.
She has Albinism. Lionsgate
While nobody is watching Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark for finely crafted character drama, the teens are practically cardboard "loser" stereotypes ripped from any '90s teen movie. The young actors do a fine enough job with the material they're given, but most scenes boil down to generic teen sleuthing. The character arcs, as far as they exist, feel jackhammered in. Stella, for instance, blames herself for her mother abandoning her when she was a kid. This factors in...somehow?
More importantly, the Sarah Bellows mystery, which serves as the framing device for all the scary stories, doesn't really work either. Early on, we hear the legend that Sarah Bellows was kept locked in the basement, abused and tortured by her wealthy family for being albino or something. After the spooky stories start, the teens spend a ton of time trying to figure out what really happened in their quest to stop Sarah Bellows. Then, in the end, it turns out that Sarah Bellows is a vengeful spirit because *drumroll* her family abused and tortured her for being albino or something. In essence, we know the ghost's motive the entire time, which makes the "mystery" kind of unnecessary.
On top of that, the movie forces in a whole lot of Richard Nixon imagery set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Maybe someone with a film degree (me) could try to argue that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is trying to make some kind of statement about how Nixon is even scarier than any of the fictional monsters (after all, this is a major point that producer Guillermo Del Toro made with his human villain in Pan's Labyrinth), but if that's what Øvredal intended, it comes across weakly. If that wasn't what he intended, this is just a movie with a whole lot of random Richard Nixon references.
For fans of the original anthology, it's great seeing some of the best scary stories come alive on-screen. But for most people, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will simply make for a fun night out, albeit a forgettable one.