Scary Stories winds up an entertaining enough experiment to warrant its own existence, if not the potential existence of future diminishing returns.
While any filmmaker with the right budget and a little creative freedom could adapt a beloved book of short horror stories into a watchable film, you know you’re watching one Guillermo Del Toro was involved in when a random monster gets added to the fray, with exacting, haunting, almost sexual level of detail. The Shape of Water helmer didn’t direct Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (that would be Trollhunter’s André Øvredal), but he was instrumental in breaking the story for the film’s script, with his recognizable fingerprints all over the place.
Rather than structure the adaptation as an anthology film adapting each tale from various volumes of Alvin Schwartz’s series of spooky collections, Del Toro and a wave of other independent writers have honed in on a story set at the end of the ‘60s, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election to the White House, with the Vietnam war in full swing, from the vantage point of a small town. The approach feels like a darker-tinged Amblin film, but with none of the fourth wall breaking nostalgia of something like “Stranger Things.” The teenage protagonists are all suitably cutesy stock characters (a sad writer girl, two annoying boys with silly senses of humor), but the standout here is Ramon (Michael Garza), a young Hispanic man who isn’t from around here who gets hounded by the police when kids start to go missing on Halloween.
Oh, yeah, kids start to go missing on Halloween because the heroes of this little movie steal a book from a haunted house that starts writing its own horror stories about people in the town. It’s a bit of a labored plot device, but as a contrivance designed to fit in as many Greatest Hits from the book without the whole picture going the omnibus route, it’s an effective one. The surrounding scenes are treated like the foreground, not like the barely-there pretense for stylish interpretations of iconic horror stories, which both works for and against the movie.
Later in the film, when some of the script’s themes come to the forefront and the premise has already been fully set up, watching these kids run around trying to save their own lives from an evil book is a thrilling proposition. The performances are uniformly charming, even if the dialogue is a mite stilted at times, so on its own, this functions are a fun narrative. But it’s clear that Øvredal really comes alive when lensing the new “translations” of stories like “The Big Toe” and “The Red Spot,” staging some striking suspense and doing justice to towering expectations from adults with heavy nostalgia for the source material.
But that excitement in the set pieces means the surrounding framing device at times feels like a minor diversion, like something the filmmaker is tolerating until he can cut loose with the more exciting sequences, a feeling he unintentionally passes along to the viewer. Luckily, in the film’s second half, those two dueling purposes more or less congeal and provide a best case scenario for this kind of adaptation. But eventually, everyone involved bites off more than they can chew. The story wraps up, but only to a point, with the filmmakers choosing instead to awkwardly and nakedly set up a sequel whose very concept feels far too grown-worthy to ever greenlight.
The crippling desire of studios to milk the cow notwithstanding, Scary Stories winds up an entertaining enough experiment to warrant its own existence, if not the potential existence of future diminishing returns.