The late author Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series — three books in total, each comprised of between 25 and 29 tales that mostly run a page or two — have captivated children since the first volume’s publication in 1981. They’ve also, due to their macabre subject matter and eerie illustrations by Stephen Gammell, drawn ire from prudish adults. Kids are made of sterner stuff than grown-ups give them credit for, and what’s fun about Scary Stories is how Schwartz encourages his readers to face the gruesome and fearful aspects of life head on (or toe off, if we go by one of the most famous tales).
This big-screen adaptation of the books — which plays out, not so elegantly, as the first part of a trilogy — boasts Guillermo del Toro as producer and story writer. Though Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe helmer André Øvredal competently handles directorial duties, del Toro’s fingerprints are all over the final product, for better and for worse.
The cleverest conceit is to give the “stories” themselves their own origin. They’re the product of a vengeful spirit named Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), who writes them in blood within a cursed tome. If you’re the subject of the tale, your doom is assured. As one of our petrified protagonists notes, “The book reads you!”
Less clever is the decision to set the film in small-town America circa 1968, just before the election of Richard Nixon. Introvert teenager/budding writer Stella Nichols (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) may be enjoying their last high school Halloween together, in addition to awakening Sarah Bellows’ seemingly evil spirit in the local haunted house. But the world around them is on fire: Nixon posters are defaced with swastikas (nothing contemporaneously relevant about that!), Vietnam is raging and the young Hispanic teen, Ramón Morales (Michael Garza), who joins this little group by chance gets some racist stares and taunts thrown at him by both the the town bully (Austin Abrams) and the local police chief (Gil Bellows).
It’s all rather ineffective window dressing (conspicuously straining for political relevance), though give del Toro credit for at least mentioning ‘Nam where Quentin Tarantino cheekily and recklessly effaced it from his own 1960s head trip, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Copious demerits to Scary Stories, however, for setting a scene at a drive-in showing Night of the Living Dead (1968) and reformatting that film’s 1.37 aspect ratio to a modern-era friendly 1.78. Sacrilege! We’ll call the needle-dropping of “Season of the Witch” by Donovan (and its end-credits cover by Lana Del Rey) a draw.
So how about the monsters? They’re alright — very much in keeping with del Toro’s fresh-from-the-pages-of-my-sketchbook! ethos. You can practically see the impassioned pencil shadings in a fleshy ghoul like the Pale Lady, who slowly stalks the red-lit hallways of a hospital before she hugs her victim to death. A demonic scarecrow, the book series’ own Toe Monster and a festering zit that houses a cluster of spiders also figure into the frights. And then there’s the Jangly Man — creepy kin to the towering Pale Man from del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), with the added benefit of being able to dismember and reconstruct himself at will.
All of these beasties are “scary.” Though they’d be much more so if they felt less like franchisable IP and more like fervent expressions of the ills of the eras on which the film aims to comment.
Production companies: 1212 Entertainment, CBS Films, Double Dare You (DDY), Entertainment One, Sean Daniel Company
Cast: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Kathleen Pollard
Director: André Øvredal
Screenplay: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
Story: Guillermo del Toro, Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton
Based on the novel by: Alvin Schwartz
Executive producers: Roberto Grande, Joshua Long
Producers: Jason F. Brown, J. Miles Dale, Sean Daniel, Guillermo del Toro, Elizabeth Grave
Music: Marco Beltrami, Anna Drubich
Cinematography: Roman Osin
Editing: Patrick Larsgaard
Casting: Rich Delia
Production design: David Brisbin
Set decoration: Patricia Larman
Costume design: Ruth Myers
Rated PG-13, 111 minutes