Ovredal skillfully walks the line between scarring and spooking his audience, giving them the tension and disturbing imagery that a PG-13 rating will allow while also providing the giddy thrills we enjoy from scary movies. Older audience members may demand something more disturbing, but younger viewers will find a terrific gateway to the horror genre.
Set in 1968 in a small Pennsylvania town, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), her friends Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chucky (Austin Zajur), and their new pal Ramon (Michael Garza) are being chased by local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) when they end up in the haunted home of urban legend Sarah Bellows.
The problem is the protagonists are everyone who was in the house when Stella found the book, and they must find a way to stop Sarah ghostly wrath before their fates are sealed.
Even though Scary Stories may not have the blood and gore that people typically expect from the horror genre, Ovredal excels at wringing the maximum amount of tension within the confines of his PG-13 rating. Scary Stories manages to be terrifying without leaning heavily into violence, an impressive feat that makes the film appropriate for younger viewers looking for a good scare but guilt-free for parents who are not ready to show their kids something like IT. I also admire how the story takes advantage of its 1968 setting, acknowledging not just the impending election of Richard Nixon, but also how Vietnam looms over the characters and the racism faced by Ramon.
Given its target audience, Scary Stories could have just focused on spooky monsters and called it a day, but I like that it takes the extra step to show that even though these characters are running from Sarah dark power, there are horrors in the world outside the supernatural. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a little slow to get started and it has a coda that feels like it was added to appease test audiences, but the heart of the film is terrific next step for budding horror fans. While it may not pack as much of a punch for adults who never read the books, Scary Stories does justice to its source material by burrowing under your skin with its nightmarish tales.