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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (4 out of 5) Directed by Directed by André Øvredal; Produced by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Dan & Kevin Hageman; Starring Zoe Colletti, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur; Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references; Running time 111 minutes; In wide release August 9, 2019.

Even if you didn’t grow up reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, you probably remember the creepy book covers, and if you flipped through the book, the unsettling artwork of Stephen Gammell; his work served as the inspiration for the creatures in the film adaptation, and they are nightmare fuel.

In 1968, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) dress up for Halloween and antagonize the town bully. They also make a new friend as they hide out in the drive-in, Ramón Morales (Michael Garza). Stella, an aspiring writer and horror film aficionado, finds immediate connection with Ramón. They have a shared love of the horror genre, and they appear immediately at ease with each other. She invites him to join them at the town’s infamous haunted house.

As they wander through the deserted mansion, Stella recounts the story of Sarah Bellows who used to tell children stories just before they disappeared. Stella discovers Sarah’s book, containing stories handwritten in red ink, or maybe something more sinister.

She’s instantly intrigued, but when she returns home and begins reading, the stories start writing themselves with the main characters being people she knows. Suffice to say, these tales do not have happy endings. Her friends struggle with convincing others that they are telling the truth, and they constantly wonder when their names will appear in the book. It’s a race against time to run from clue to clue to discover the secrets of Sarah’s life before more stories start coming true.

Auggie and Chuck aren’t very fleshed out characters, but even if they were, I would have been too distracted by the actor playing Chuck. I can’t be the only one who thinks he looks like a young Josh Radnor (Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother), but it distracted me.

The real stars of the film, however, are the creatures in each tale, like Harold, a creepy scarecrow whose smushed face will haunt my dreams forever. Worse than that is the grinning “something” in the Red Room story; and don’t get me started on Ramón’s monster which is absolutely horrifying. The special effects were top-notch, and I don’t doubt if people will sleep with the lights on after seeing it. In fact, the last time the visuals of a film creeped me out so much was in The Ring.

It would be easy to dismiss the film with its generic small-town setting and stereotypical highschoolers (the jock, the prom queen), but Sarah’s backstory was intriguing as it developed, and the moody visuals of the rustling leaves put me right into the mood of fall and pumpkin spice lattes. I also identified with Stella, the loner writer who wears glasses.

The film attempts to go deeper with the backdrop of Nixon winning the presidential election, and the looming shadow of the Vietnam War, but the filmmakers didn’t succeed in tying the fictional monsters to those real-life events.  Perhaps the only point was to remind us that these events take place in the late 60’s.

Scary Stories was far more entertaining than I expected it to be with some genuinely scary moments, and I can say that it is worth watching.