André Øvredal and Guillermo Del Toro bring the horror anthology to life with mixed results
Anthology films aren’t a strange conceit in horror, and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark felt born for an adaptation in the vein of such films as the ABCs of Death, Masters of Horror, or Creepshow. André Øvredal’s new film, however, takes the unexpected — and uneven — approach of stringing a “greatest hits” of Schwartz’s stories into a united narrative thread, sparking fun if predictable moments of late-summer frights.
Scary Stories follows a group of kids growing up in rural Mill Valley during Halloween 1968 — “the last Halloween of their childhoods,” a third-act-weary voiceover intones. That year, election posters for Richard Nixon count among the spookiest decorations hanging around town. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti, in an effective turn) retreats into her horror writing in the wake of her mother’s abandonment. Augie (Gabriel Rush) is eager to grow up and finally win the affection of one of the neighborhood girls, Stella among them. Chuck (Austin Zajur), just wants to have fun, and brings his two friends out for some Halloween mischief. The squad’s latest prank against a villainous quarterback forces them into the car of drifter teen Ramon (Michael Garza) for safety. All four eventually flee into the town’s most notorious haunted house for the evening. But when Stella discovers an indestructible book full of self-penning scary stories featuring herself and her friends, the four quickly realize the scares won’t stop once Halloween’s over.
To the credit of its creative team, the overall atmosphere of Scary Stories plays as a welcome mix of Øvredal’s gory lore-spinning and producer Guillermo Del Toro’s eye for nightmarish childlike wonder. The film’s first third plays up Amblin antics as Stella, Augie, and Chuck coordinate their perfect Halloween via walkie talkies and bike rides, indulging in plenty of preteen mischief and hints of childhood crushes along the way. Stella’s love of all things horror also allows Øvredal’s set design to pay tribute to classic horror in droves, from a sequence set in a drive-in playing Night of the Living Dead to decorating the character’s bedroom with Lugosi and Karloff one-sheets. A particular Session 9 homage in a cobwebbed hospital corridor made me grin from ear to ear.
Dan and Kevin Hageman’s script also allows for some meaningful but far too brief introductory beats for each kid. Much of Scary Stories centers around Stella’s anxieties about potentially causing her parents’ split, as well as the not-so-subtle racism Ramon faces from car-vandalizing locals who peg him as a trouble-causing migrant worker. While the character work can range from sincere to clunky, Øvredal dramatizes the leads’ biggest anxieties just enough to care when the film’s horror kicks into high gear.
The book Stella finds was written by Sarah Bellows, a mysterious madwoman whose scary stories caused the children that heard them to disappear. Stella quickly realizes that the book is reading them — and brings the kids’ scariest imaginings to life to take them out one by one. Ironically enough, Scary Stories is at its strongest when sticking to this conceit, preserving the unique identities of the source material’s disparate stories by tying them to the personalities of the film’s characters. While these sequences do err more towards the jump-scare side, it’s clear Øvredal and team are having a blast with the material. At one point, Øvredal draws out the inevitable BOO! from creeped-out silence to nervous giggles and back again before finally delivering the payoff. While considerably tamer in onscreen gross-outs than Øvredal and Del Toro’s other films, Scary Stories does feature some clever usages of practical effects — save one particularly cartoonish CG behemoth. With its eagerness to scare both younger and more jaded viewers alike, Scary Stories is undeniably fun when it lets its audience just go along for the ride.
Of course, the flip side to this is how much Scary Stories slows down the more it pivots back to its newly-created unifying backstory. With time running out, Stella and Co. desperately try to solve the mystery behind the fate of Sarah Bellows, to wholly unsurprising and watch-checking ends. Where some of the fun in Schwartz’s stories came from their universal familiarity, the Hagemans go down a narrative path that’s been trod enough to become a narrative trench. The stories more than justify themselves when seen as personifications of each character’s deepest fears — to unify them in another “maligned vengeful spirit” story rids them of their individuality, and brings down the rest of the work done by Øvredal and his cast. The heavy focus on this mystery also shortchanges the film’s woefully underutilized character actors, Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris and Spanish horror icon Javier Botet among them. A last-minute coda that sets the stage for a potential franchise is both disappointing and unnecessary — not only does it suddenly present a bewildering new set of rules, but it assumes that Scary Stories’ rehashed storyline is intriguing enough to fuel additional films. No one expected Schwartz’s original single-serving spooks to end with an infinity stone-esque teaser for a next installment–nor should we have to.
At the same time, such well-worn conventions may go unnoticed by younger newcomers to horror, and its many winks and references may actually make Scary Stories a welcome gateway towards other classic horror flicks. While it spins its wheels far more than it needs to in justifying its own existence (and doesn’t get far), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark at least tries to be a fun experience for young and older viewers. The scariest part may be that it often succeeds in doing so.