Wouldn’t it be a much nicer world if today’s kids had more reason to be afraid of The Jangly Man than 8Chan users? The adaptation of the “good kind of traumatizing” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is actually surprisingly savvy about social context. Set in 1969, the film draws an unambiguous parallel between Vietnam and the origins of modern horror storytelling. Perhaps more disturbingly, it uses modern special effects juju to make Stephen Gammell’s illustrations from the 1980s come to life. Those raised on the books can now share the PTSD with their offspring, because nothing says family quite like “Oh God, get it away!”

Although a bit stagnant between spooky sequences, the screenplay cowritten by Guillermo del Toro features 100% less possibly non-consensual mer-sex than his Oscar winner. SSTTITD follows Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Ramón (Michael Garza), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) as they stumble headfirst into a simple conceit. On Halloween, they go to a house where a lady once hung herself with her own hair, which is both gross and a wonderful advertisement for her beauty regimen.

Stella yoinks a book from the dungeon where the hair-hanging lady was kept. This angers angry dead lady, who begins writing new stories in the book with blood that then actually happen, punishing everyone who stumbled into her home. Scarecrows come to life, spiders crawl out of faces, and cannibalism accidentally occurs, just like the PG-13 rating would suggest.

For real, can we take just a second to laugh at the abject bullshittery of the PG-13 rating? A film like Eighth Grade, which could massively comfort its titular audience, gets an R rating thanks to a few stray F-bombs, but adolescents can watch a reanimated corpse drag a dude who just ate a human toe straight to hell? I’m actually not arguing that the latter should necessarily be kept from all young people, as developing an affinity for fictional horror can be emotionally insulating. It’s more that my hypocrisy threshold has been filled far beyond my gag reflex.

At any rate, director André Øvredal does a damn good job of squeezing in some genuine scares amidst a lot of Scooby Doo sleuthing by teens. Because microfiche research has never been thrilling, the film suffers from substantial fits and starts, while never becoming outright boring. That’s largely because the cast is somewhat shockingly charismatic and competent.

SSTTITD may be a bit too scary for younger folks and a bit too tame for older ones, at least for any who weren’t weaned into the frightful genre by the putrefied mind milk of Alvin Schwartz. That’s okay, as all movies don’t have to be for everyone, no matter how desperately studio execs lust for the broadest of appeals. Many have dubbed both the source material and movie “gateway horror,” which sounds more malicious than it is. The catharsis of cinematic thrills and chills is frequently underrated and, given the state of things these days, needed now more than ever.

Grade = B

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