"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" actually makes you care about the fates of its characters, likable or venal. It has a way of treating even the gross-out bits, involving scarecrow transformation nastiness and the aftermath of a Cinerama Dome-sized spider bite, for real emotion and no little anguish. The movie's good even when it goes in too many directions at once, because it gets the kids right.
It comes from a half-dozen short, sharp tales of woe created by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated, with fabulous, sinister panache, by Stephen Gammell. The first volume was published in 1981, followed by two sequels. Since there's no connective tissue in the original collections and the film is not a series of separate, "Twilight Zone"-model episodes, the project faced a daunting adaptation challenge.
Director André Øvredal ("Trollhunter," "The Autopsy of Jane Doe") and screenwriters Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman cleverly stitch here and amalgamate there, working from the story cooked up by producer Guillermo del Toro along with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan.
The protagonist is Stella, an emotionally isolated high school student living with her father. Stella and her pals Chuck and Augie get to know Ramon, new in town and instantly targeted as Not Their Kind by police and civilians alike. Ramon's story is that he's "following the harvest" and going where the work takes him.
The new story material goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a cruelly treated woman, Sarah Bellows, who was locked up in the family mansion and spent her time spinning all sorts of horror stories. Sarah's book is discovered by Stella when the kids investigate the abandoned mansion on Halloween, joined by Chuck's sister, Ruth.
The stories in long-dead Sarah's big book directly implicate the 1968-era kids at the movie's center, so that they take turns living out what's being written, before their eyes, in blood-red ink. As Stella, Zoe Colletti is terrific — a lower-key and very affecting variation on Velma in "Scooby-Doo."
The rest of the cast is uneven. Along with Colletti, the real stars are the monsters, and the closer they hew to the Gammell illustrations, the better. The digital effects are unusually evocative, even when the thrill sequences play out in the expected ways.
I happily stuck with "Scary Stories" for its clever, compelling solutions to its own adaptation problems. It's not a classic, but it's good, which means it's better than most of what we've gotten this summer.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Cast: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Rating: PG-13 for terror/ violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets and brief sexual references
Running time:1 hour, 48 minutes
Theaters:Aksarben, Alamo La Vista, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads