With the full force of producer and monster fanboy Guillermo del Toro behind it, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is, undeniably, a lovingly crafted adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s beloved series for younger readers. But unlike those spooky books, this perfectly fine big-screen version isn’t destined for classic status.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. It’s just, disappointingly, not all that scary.
In the first act, we’re introduced to Stella (Zoe Colletti), who’s basically a del Toro stand-in, if the future Oscar winner happened to be a teenage girl growing up in small-town Pennsylvania circa 1968. Stella is a bit of a misfit who loves to write horror fiction and deems Night of the Living Dead to be “the best flick all year.” Her bedroom decor is to die for, with its enviable mishmash of monster magazines and creepy movie posters.
Appropriately, the movie opens on Halloween. Stella and her friends are in prank mode, hoping to dole out some payback to a jock bully who’s been terrorising them for years. The frame story eventually leads them into exploring an abandoned mansion, where Stella discovers a book filled with eerie tales. Before long, fresh ink that looks suspiciously like blood starts appearing on its pages, and each kid gets a turn playing the unfortunate protagonist.
Del Toro has gone on the record saying he didn’t want Scary Stories to be an anthology film, so he modelled “the book that reads you” idea on a similar tome from his own Pan’s Labyrinth.
With that inspiration to guide them, director André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (who’ve both written for del Toro’s animated Netflix series Trollhunters) give us a film that’s definitely not an anthology, but its structure is still far from original. It’s basically a more creative spin on a slasher movie, complete with a villain who methodically picks off characters one by one.
The distinction, of course, is that each gruesome scene is plucked from the Scary Stories source material, with the story moulded to fit each victim’s worst fears. Said fears are well-telegraphed ahead of time, presumably so the monsters don’t feel totally random, but the Scary Stories beasties are so specific and unusual they still require a bit of wrangling to make them fit. The girl who gets “The Red Spot” is deathly afraid of spiders? OK, that makes sense. The others, like the “Pale Lady” sequence, require more explanation. In this particular case, the character just kind of blurts out ahead of the scene that he’s been having nightmares of a red room. A few minutes later… this happens:
You can see, by comparing the above and below images, the precise, reverential approach the filmmakers took when transforming Stephen Gammell’s memorable illustrations for Schwartz’s books into living, breathing, lurking, shambling monsters. The monsters themselves don’t have a ton of screen time, but each one gets what they need to make maximum impact. There are also some nifty Easter eggs referencing other stories that don’t get specific call-outs otherwise, so pay close attention if you’re a fan of the books.
The film’s period setting also feels a little gratuitous at times. Sure, 1968 means the kids don’t have cell phones or Google, but aside from the cool cars and some flagrant racism, the other big signifiers of the era are Richard Nixon’s presidential bid and the Vietnam War. Both are glimpsed on TV and presented as very bad things, but these real-world fears feel somewhat out of place in a movie where the chief concern is that some kids — who are the very same age as the kids being sent off to war, Scary Stories makes sure to point out — are being chased down by ghosts.
If you don’t spend too much time dwelling on the patchwork feel of the script, there is much to enjoy elsewhere, especially when it comes to the creature design. The “Jangly Man,” a twisted zombie who was created especially for the film, is the flashiest of the bunch, but for sheer grossness and shock value, “The Big Toe” makes quite the impression. And then, of course, there’s legendary evil scarecrow “Harold,” whose page-to-screen transformation excellently retains the weathered malevolence of what’s probably Gammell’s most nightmare-inducing drawing.
Though I wouldn’t mind so much if Scary Stories added up to a revolving door of monsters, it aims higher, making sure we know it’s really a story about, well, the power of storytelling. Stories can hurt you, we’re reminded on multiple occasions—and that means rumours, gossip, and lies in addition to the kind of stories that can bring ghouls to life. It’s not a lightweight theme, but its presentation here feels overly heavy-handed, with Stella offering voice-over at the beginning and end to make sure we’ve caught on.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is out September 26.