Horror fans tend to be sniffy about filmmakers who eschew lashing of gore and an atmosphere of kiddie-repulsing intensity in favor of attempting to garner the largest possible audience with a rating lower than an R. But every so often, a movie comes around which both reminds those fans of the less extreme terror tales which originally inspired their love for genre cinema while also helping to ensure the future of horror by seeding that devotion in today’s teens and pre-teens. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark lands firmly — and with an ominous, yet not too ominous, squelch — in that camp.
Directed by André Øvredal (who made 2016’s lean, mean scare machine The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and produced by Oscar-winning genre giant Guillermo del Toro, the movie is based on the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books of short horror stories, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Those tales introduced readers to such ghouls as a scarecrow who comes to terrifying life and a creature in search of their missing big toe, which has actually been eaten by a family (long story — well, a short story, technically, but you take the point). Instead of taking the obvious anthology movie approach, Øvredal, del Toro, and the movie’s writers have integrated Schwartz and Gammell’s memorable monsters into a single tale, a sort of supernatural slasher movie with a revolving cast of beasties standing in for Freddy or Jason.
Opening on the Halloween of 1968, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark stars Zoe Margaret Colletti, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur as a group of small-town high school misfits Stella, Auggie, and Chuck — think an undermanned, Pennsylvania-dwelling Losers Club. After provoking the (somewhat justified) ire of teen thug Tommy (Austin Abrams) by throwing a bag of aflame excrement into his car, the trio seek refuge at the local drive-in and meet the passing-through-town Ramon Morales (Michael Garza). This being Halloween, and also a horror movie, the quartet break into an abandoned mansion where they anger — through non-burning poop means — the ghost of a long-dead, much-abused, woman named Sarah Bellows. The spirit’s revenge? Every night, she magically writes a new story in a book our heroes find in the basement of the mansion, summoning into the real world a different monstery threat. We’ll spoil matters no further, except to say that the resulting mayhem features a lot of body horror — an obsession of del Toro’s dating back to his 1993 vampire film Cronos — and manages to mine terror out of spiders, stew, and even hugs.
Blessed with some firm hands on the terror tiller and a winning cast, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a handsome, and deliciously horrible, horror movie. Will it give diehard gorehounds nightmares? Maybe not. But a lot of younger audience members will be begging their parents to keep at least one bedroom light on after seeing it. I’d bet my big toe on it! B+