“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” a wise woman once said. And sometimes, we tell others stories to scare the living shit out of them. Like that one about the kid who keeps beating on a scarecrow in a cornfield — until one night, the scarecrow decides to beat back. Or the urban legend about the girl who found a pimple, only it wasn’t exactly a pimple (think spiders and eggs). Or the yarn about the Jangling Man, who … well, maybe you shouldn’t ask about him. Some stories are best left untold.
Each of those particular spooky tales show up in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a big-screen adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s things-that-go-bump-in-your-psyche anthologies featuring shuffling corpses, ghostly specters and good ol’ fashioned homicidal maniacs. Part campfire folklore and part E.C. Comics-style immorality tales, the stories and their terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell in this trio of tomes have scarred several generations of young readers. They functioned beautifully as a sort of Macabre 101 for Kids; if you grew up in or after the ’80s and your school didn’t ban these nightmare-inducing volumes outright, then these popular books helped introduce your impressionable mind to the joy of having your spine tingled and your bones chilled.
That’s exactly the vibe that the movie, directed by André Øvredal and produced/co-written by Guillermo Del Toro, is aiming for. (It’s no surprise that The Shape of Water filmmaker is a driving force behind this; you can totally picture several of Gammell’s drawings hanging in the noted horror scholar’s “Bleak House” man cave.) And the fact that it nails a lot of the books’ giddy grotesquerie helps smooth over the set-up’s hodgepodge structure. It’s 1968, America’s turbulent Year Zero of the 20th-century. Nixon is talking Vietnam on the tube; Night of the Living Dead is playing at the drive-in. In small-town Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, Halloween still means innocent fun like dressing up as a witch or a clown — sorry, a “Pierrot” — and throwing flaming bags of shit at the local high school jock-bully.
That’s exactly what Chuck (Austin Zajur), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti — remember this name) end up doing, and the cretin in a letterman jacket (Austin Abrams) who was their target is looking for payback. Eventually, he and his goons end up chasing the three kids, along with Ramón (Michael Garza), a young man who has his reasons for passing through town, into an old dark house. Legend has it that the decrepit Bellows Manor was home to one Sarah Bellows, a girl who was driven mad by her family back in the 1890s. She may have known black magic. And she also kept a journal of sorts, one which spontaneously writes out murderous stories in blood. Worse, these tales have a troubling tendency of coming true in real time. “You don’t read the book,” Stella intones solemnly. “The book reads you.”
Bring on the arachnids, which come pouring out of “The Red Spot” on the face of Auggie’s sister (Natalie Ganzhorn)! Here comes “Harold,” that straw man with a grudge to settle! Enter the shuffling corpse looking to retrieve “The Big Toe” she seems to have lost! How about “The Dream” you never wake up from, the one that includes a corpulent, pale figure following you down a red hallway? The movie strings together a number of the kids-lit series’ greatest hits, each of which are presented with a gleefully ghoulish panache. Every so often, a glimpse of a real-life, period-appropriate horror pops into the frame (clean-cut teens boarding a bus that will transport them into a future where they become cannon fodder). Occasionally, a reminder of our current contemporary insanity — people seem mighty inclined to ignore Ramon’s basic human rights at the drop of a hat — shows up as well.
It’s all a lot of chain-rattling, black-cat-screeching fun, though not such a blast that you don’t notice how generic and ramshackle the whole endeavor feels, or that an ending that can best be summed up as “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” doesn’t necessarily tie everything together the way the creators would like it to. But little things like narrative and technique feel slightly secondary here. Its title sets the tenor — these are stories meant to be passed among youngsters in a hushed whisper, a flashlight below their chins and a goal of frightening the holy ghost out of their friends. The pity is that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will mostly be seen by jaded genre completists and nostalgic fortysomethings. Wrong demographic. You owe it to your kids to take them to this. It’s training-wheels horror done right.