Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ★★½

The late American writer and folklorist Alvin Schwartz tapped into the minds of young readers and traumatized generations of eager children by telling otherwise PG-13 horror tales with a transgressive, R-rated glee that made kids feel like they had read something they weren’t supposed to. There’s hardly a millennial in the United States who wasn’t happily scarred by the three volumes of Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series, and couldn’t describe Stephen Gammell’s rotting illustrations to their therapist in all of their red and blue detail.

André Øverdal’s film adaptation, as clever and well-crafted as it is, can’t help but invert the formula that the source material relied upon for its success. Here is an R-rated concept that’s been watered down until it passed for a PG-13 movie; it’s plenty harrowing and full of gruesome effects, but it never feels dangerous. It never feels like it could be coming for you next. A portion of the blame for that can be chalked up to the basic nature of making something that has to perform at the summer box office before it plays at sleepovers, and “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is very much a movie that tries to split the difference between the YA crowd and a general audience.

More often than not, that approach is the film’s Achilles’ heel. The beauty of Schwartz’s urban legends was in their simplicity: In a hook on a doorknob, a ribbon around a girl’s neck, or — maybe worst of all — a pair of headlights in your rearview mirror. Dan and Kevin Hageman’s screenplay, however, is guided by the kind of 21st century “everything is connected” mentality that molds cinematic universes, and it contrives a way to bind all of the Scary Stories it borrows into one master narrative. The result is a movie where even the most frightening things never feel like they might follow you home.

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