By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — Classic horror motifs are given fresh life in the fun chiller “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (Lionsgate). However, while the film is essentially a bloodless affair, other elements make it best for grownups.
Set in 1968 Pennsylvania, the proceedings revolve around teenage aspiring writer Stella (Zoe Colletti).
Together with her two best pals, Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), Stella starts Halloween night off by seeking gross-out revenge on local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). When Tommy gives chase, baseball bat in hand, the trio seeks refuge at the local drive-in where they wind up in the car of just-passing-through stranger Ramon (Michael Garza).
Promptly befriending the out-of-towner, the amigos decide to give him a thrill by way of a visit to the local haunted house. There, Stella purloins a tome that turns out to be capable of unleashing mayhem.
As Stella and Ramon fall for each other, each character is imperiled in turn when a story about him or her is magically added to the stolen volume. Each tale is based on a narrative or a dream that has troubled the targeted individual in the past and plays on that person’s worst fears.
In adapting a series of books by Alvin Schwartz, screenwriters and brothers Dan and Kevin Hageman throw in the ghost of a troubled girl from the turn of the last century for good measure.
The script implicitly contrasts the welcome Ramon receives from his newfound buddies with the prejudiced hostility shown him by Tommy and by Officer Turner (Gil Bellows), the small town’s police chief. Some less-than-subtle retrospective commentary on the social turbulence of the time, by contrast, may not win the assent of everyone in the audience.
Digging up the controversies of a bygone era is not the principal agenda here, though. Instead, director Andre Ovredal presides over a spirited, often funny collection of eerie urban legends come to life. His approach is so restrained, moreover, that when one victim is stabbed by a pitchfork, virtually no gore is visible.
But the nature of the nasty tricks Stella and company play on Tommy — their preliminaries take place in Chuck’s bathroom — make them less than a treat. And the occasional cuss word crops up every so often to put this outside the category of family fare.
Still, this is an old-fashioned undertaking in the best sense, a lightweight, self-aware piece of moviemaking that grins at its own Gothic tropes.
The film contains brief moments of harsh but bloodless violence, sexual references, a scatological theme, a few uses of profanity, a handful of milder oaths and occasional crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.