“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a sort of welcome throwback, a horror movie cleverly designed to be more spooky than truly grisly. That leaves it, however, in a bit of a no-man’s land, as this PG-13-rated film is still too scary for the tweens that might be drawn to the challenge and not jarring enough for older horror buffs accustomed to far worse.
Based on Alvin Schwartz’s books, the movie is produced by Guillermo del Toro, who also worked on the script (with four other writers) with an eye on directing it. In between, though, he won an Oscar for “The Shape of Water” and passed the directing chores on to Andre Øvredal, who has done an admirable enough job with the relatively slender material.
At an advance screening in Los Angeles, del Toro described “Scary Stories” as “a gateway movie,” intended to serve as an introduction to the world of horror. As is so often the case, what it really feels like is a hodge-podge, a pop-culture amalgamation that includes Stephen King’s youth-featured stories, “Stranger Things” and Creepy magazine, for anyone old enough to remember that.
Del Toro and his collaborators clearly do, and have intriguingly set this story in 1968, with the tension unfolding against a backdrop of Richard Nixon’s election and the Vietnam War. It gives extra gravity to a fairly traditional yarn, as a group of teens brave venturing into a supposed haunted house on Halloween night, find a mysterious book and gradually face the consequences of their intrusion.
“We woke something up,” one of them muses, as the kids wage what amounts to a race against time, trying to figure out what’s responsible – and if there’s a way to stop it – before they meet a gruesome fate.
Three of the kids (well played by Zoe Colletti, Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur) are classic nerds, united against the usual high-school bullies, while a fourth (Michael Garza) comes into their company harboring his own secret. It all starts so well, in terms of setting up those dynamics, you wish the film had the momentum to carry it across the finish line at that level, but alas, the action grows more mundane the end.
Along the way, “Scary Stories” provides some nifty horror imagery – indicative of del Toro’s splendid eye for such things – as well as nice homages to the past, such as the teens finding sanctuary in a drive-in theater where “The Night of the Living Dead” is playing.
Aside from the aforementioned influences, “Scary Stories” tonally has much in common with the macabre tales that were popular in the 1950s, such as those movies starring Vincent Price based on classic authors like Edward Allan Poe. Still, if this isn’t the splatter-fest that many horror movies have become, anyone expecting “Goosebumps”-type tameness should be equally forewarned.
The books have enjoyed a long shelf-life, and the movie might too – becoming the kind of thing kids assemble to watch on Halloweens to come as they start to test the boundaries of how many scares they can handle.
Until then, chalk “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” up as an interesting experiment, one whose success, ultimately, will likely depend on its epilogue.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” premieres Aug. 9 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.