For a certain generation, Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell's trilogy of horror storybooks hold a special chill. Even the covers of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark stoked fear in the heart when they were whipped out by that one proto-goth preteen at every sleepover who would insist on making everyone look at the ghost drawing in the middle of "The Haunted House." They're the kind of books you would hide under your sleeping bag until the parents turned in for the night, unsure if they'd be deemed TOO scary. Most of the stories in the books weren't actually that scary, many of them ending with funny stage directions like "(Turn to one of your friends and scream:) 'AAAAAAAAAAAH!!'" -- it was the illustrations that made them so, simple drawings rendering even the most mundane tale into something out of H.P. Lovecraft's nightmares. The best parts of Andre Øvredal's new film adaptation make use of those legendary drawings, bringing Schwartz and Gammell's most frightening stories to life. If only that's all it did.
Where Scary Stories and its sequels were simply collections of stories and urban folktales, the film adaptation takes an approach that film adaptations of books like this have tended to take (see: Goosebumps). Instead of creating an anthology storybook film of a few disconnected tales, the Scary Stories movie embeds them all in a single narrative arc that overcomplicates things and is, ultimately, a distraction from what makes the movie actually fun to watch.
The year is 1968, for some reason, and young teen Stella (Zoe Colletti) breaks into her small town's resident haunted house with her friends after escaping a group of high school bullies. Stella, an aficionado of horror stories, relates the urban legend of Sarah Bellows, who was kept prisoner in the depths of the house generations ago by her rich family because of some deformity or difference she had as a child. Tumbling into Sarah's musty bedroom, Stella steals her book of scary stories, which she used to frighten the children who would come visit her. The book, they discover, writes stories all by itself, á la Tom Riddle's diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- stories that come to life and menace the inhabitants of their town.