Strictly speaking, Scary Stories is not exclusively Del Toro’s baby — it’s a collective effort — but it has his visual imprint, a meticulous darkly glowing retro environment, Steadicam flowing shots, and dreamy drowned corpse-style monsters. In truth, it feels like a lot of trouble to go to for a fairly trite series of horror episodes strung along a skeleton plot.
The setting is Mill Town, Pennsylvania and the time is Halloween night, 1968, for the apparent purpose of providing some self-conscious references to current politics. Swastikas decorate pictures of incoming president Richard Nixon, Vietnam rages on the television and everyone is overtly racist to the town’s handsome new Hispanic kid, Ramon (Michael Garza).
Screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman and director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), have handpicked a half-dozen stories from Schwartz’s books, strung together around a Scooby-Doo-style mystery and lots of jump scares.
Our heroine is aspiring writer and high-school senior, Stella Nichols (Zoe Margaret Colletti), an introverted bespectacled outsider, who reads comics, writes, and takes care of her single dad. She hangs out with her nerd male friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). The three of them are planning on spending their last Halloween night together, to play some pranks on the mean kids.
After a confrontation with racist frat boy Tommy (Austin Abrams), the three kids hide out in what is, apparently, Mill Creek’s haunted house. They’re soon joined by Ramon. After crashing around the house, they find an old book and Stella takes it home with her. Bad idea.
It turns out they have awakened the angry spirit of a woman named Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), whose violent literary impulse leads to real-life consequences. As Sarah writes stories in the book, the script appears in blood on the blank page, and the gruesome events she describes take place to the kids who awakened her.
As Stella, Colletti is a winningly smart and sensitive lead, but the rest of the young cast is uneven and the plot is, essentially, Final Destination, where one young character after another meets a gruesome end. The survivors run around doing confusing detective work and encountering various puffy and gnarly-looking monsters (which I understand were inspired by Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations).
Most memorable are Harold, a scarecrow with a leering grey-green pumpkin head, and the Pale Lady, a bloated creature with a windsock smile who’s like your blowsy aunt who embraces you into suffocation.
The topper though, goes to a pustule on a girl’s cheek, which begins to swell to grapefruit-size at an alarming rate, just as she’s ready to go onstage in a performance of Bye Bye Birdy. Anyone familiar with popular urban legends will know exactly what’s inside that pulsating lump — but she doesn’t, which makes it kind of fun when the thing pops.
Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark. Directed by André Ovredal. Written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman. Starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Garza Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint , Austin Zajur, and Natalie Ganzhorn. Opens wide August 9.