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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK: 2 STARS. “Mildly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

When you think of kid’s books wholesome titles like “Captain Underpants” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” likely spring to mind. But for 1980s children with a darker sensibility who were too old for “The Addams Family” but too young for “Stephen King,” the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” trilogy by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, where must reads. Violent and eerie, the American Library Association reports that the gothic story collections were the most challenged books of the 1990s, which, of course, only made them more appealing to rebellious kids. A new film produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, uses the books as the basis for a new story.

Set in the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania in 1968, the action begins on Halloween. When besties Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) play a prank on the town bully, he looks for revenge forcing them to hide first at a drive-in where they meet new kid in town Ramón (Michael Garza).

The night soon leads them to a spooky house on the edge of town. The decrepit old place was once the grand home of the Mill Valley’s richest family, the Bellows. Now all that remains are dusty ruins and, as the kids discover, a diary of old stories written in blood by Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), the youngest, cursed daughter of the once powerful family. As strange things happen the kids realize the book is making their worst fears come true. “You don’t read the book,” says Stella, “the book reads you. I’m afraid we woke the book up.”

This movie could be more accurately called “Mildly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” It’s a collection of jump scares and creepy elements—scarecrows, spiders and a severed toe—cobbled together to create a teen-friendly flick that owes a debt to the Halloween afterschool specials of yesteryear. It’s Scooby Doo with courser language and better effects; an entry level horror for teens who find the Garbage Pail Kids too intense.

For any boomers who might take the kids or grandkids the “toe stew“ is gross but the scariest stuff comes in the form of background news reports on Vietnam and Nixon’s re-election.

As an anthology type movie “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is slowed by the supernatural sleuthing of Stella and company as they try to get to the bottom of sad Sarah’s story. Repetition of the legend and lots of shots of Chuck’s freaked out face slow the momentum. During one of these longer scenes I wondered, “When is the pacing building suspense and when is it building tedium?“ By the end credits the background mystery has sucked the air out of what could’ve been a tightly crafted fun movie.

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