[Screen It]


(2019) (Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza) (PG-13)

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Horror: A small group of late 1960s era teens must contend with a haunted book that writes stories depicting each of their deaths.
It's 1968 and Stella Nicholls (ZOE MARGARET COLLETTI) is a teen living in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania with her dad. She's mostly an introvert, but has close friends in Auggie Hilderbrandt (GABRIEL RUSH) and Chuck Steinberg (AUSTIN ZAJUR) and with it being Halloween, they decide to get even on the local bully, Tommy (AUSTIN ABRAMS), who's terrorized them for years. That eventually results in them running for cover in the local drive-in movie theater where they hop into Ramón Morales' (MICHAEL GARZA) car. He's an outsider trying to keep a low profile, especially from local cop Chief Turner (GIL BELLOWS).

When the evening's encounter with Tommy is done, Stella wonders if Ramón wants to see a haunted house and they all end up at the former Bellows mansion. Rumor has it that a kid died there, so the place has been boarded up, but the teens decide to enter anyway. Being a writer herself, Stella takes an old book once owned by young Sara Bellows who the family kept locked away in the basement. Legend has it that for anyone who asks Sara's spirit for a story, it will be the last one they hear.

They don't think much of that, but when Tommy ends up missing following a story in the book featuring a character also with that name, the teens become suspicious and concerned, although Auggie's older sister, Ruth (NATALIE GANZHORN), doesn't buy into any of it. That is, until something creepy happens to her. From that point on, and as they witness the book write new stories depicting their own deaths, the teens try to figure out how to stop that.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
It's often been said that every story that could be told has already been so, and watching the vast majority of Hollywood offerings over the past decade would seem to indicate that's pretty much true. I've personally lost track of sequels, remakes and reboots as much as those responsible for green-lighting mainstream movies have seemed to have lost the will or desire to release something new.

At times, though, and if handled with just the right deft and creative touch, derivative works can sometimes still be enjoyable. Case in point is "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark." Based on the children's book series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz that first debuted in the early 1980s, the film contains, natch, scary story elements that we've seen repeatedly populating such movies over the years.

There's a small group of kids -- played here by Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur -- who must contend with supernatural events of their own releasing that now seem to be targeting them. An old, reportedly haunted mansion is present, as its back-story that served as the catalyst for what's happening now, complete with a vengeful spirit who was wronged while alive in human form. There's a bully, a cornfield that serves as a horror maze of sorts, inanimate objects that come to life and even a monster -- the Jangly Man -- who usually gets around on all fours. And that list goes on and on.

But you know what? This latest assembly of all those genre tropes actually works fairly well, and the events that might have given kids nightmares after reading the books will most definitely do the same for their and other kids who happen upon this offering. I was a bit creeped out at times and my childhood days were over many, many moons ago.

I'm guessing having filmmaker Guillermo del Toro involved with the project clearly didn't hurt matters. While he didn't direct or write the screenplay -- those honors go to André Øvredal and Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman respectively -- del Toro helped pen the initial screen story and served as one of the producers. And his influential style of storytelling in films such as "Pan's Labyrinth" certainly seems to have rubbed off on the look, feel and atmosphere of what shows up on the screen.

The story takes place in 1968 with Nixon and Vietnam as the national and cultural backdrops for the events that unfold over a number of nights in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. There, Stella Nicholls (Colletti) is a bookwormish teen who lives with her single dad and has only two true friends, Auggie Hilderbrandt (Rush) and Chuck Steinberg (Zajur).

Their initial modus operandi is simply to deliver some stinky comeuppance to the local bully (Austin Abrams), and while subsequently fleeing from him and his goons they run into outsider teen Ramón Morales (Garza) at a drive-in movie theater showing a horror flick. Being that it's Halloween night, Stella asks Ramón if he wants to see a haunted house and soon the four teens are traipsing about inside the old Bellows mansion.

Rumors are discussed about the late 19th-century family keeping a child -- Sara -- locked away from public view, and even removed from family portraits. She reportedly read stories to kids through the walls, but then one such child died, Sara hung herself, and then spooky stuff started happening.

As is usually the case in such tales, the current kids don't believe any of that at first, but then Tommy goes missing (cue the cornfield scene) and the quartet soon realize the late girl's book of short stories is now writing tales about them. What follows are some fairly effective frights.

And while there's nothing that new among the derivative elements that populate the offering, all involved rearrange and dust them off to such a polished degree that fans of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" will probably enjoy and be scared by what's offered. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 7, 2019 / Posted August 9, 2019

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