Like Goosebumps but chillier, Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark anthologies served up horror to American pre-teens during the ’80s, their urban legend and folklore-inspired short stories featuring twisted monsters and monstrous twists. Considered too strong for smaller kids, they earned a certain notoriety in the States, thanks mainly to the surprisingly disturbing illustrations by Stephen Gammell, and still boast a strong, culty fanbase.
Also like Goosebumps, Hollywood has, perhaps belatedly, spawned a culty-fanbase-serving movie adaptation which, rather than risking an omnibus approach, does its best to cram a ‘greatest shocks’ collection of the author’s creations into a vaguely plotted framing device. But where R.L. Stine’s oeuvre allowed for a comical, Amblin-ish contemporary romp featuring Jack Black as the writer himself, this collaboration between Troll Hunter director André Øvredal and producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro is located in the late ’60s, dials up the scares beyond the reach of its original target audience, and recasts Schwartz as an archetypal ghost-girl with a soul-darkening grudge.
Heavy on jump scares, cobwebby corridors and CGI-assisted fiends, Øvredal and del Toro revel in the genre’s bloody heartland, and don’t seem too fussed about trying anything new. There is a satirical sideshow which parallels the diabolical supernatural goings-on with the election of Richard Nixon and the escalation of Vietnam, but its relevance isn’t as clear as, say, the use of Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric in Matt Reeves’ Let Me In.
While the central story is frustratingly flimsy, Scary Stories does at least deliver on the set-pieces.
While the central story is frustratingly flimsy, tugging its lightly sketched teen protagonists in unconvincing but plot-necessary directions, Scary Stories does at least deliver on the set-pieces. Most effective is the one inspired by ‘The Red Spot’, in which a zit skin-crawlingly swells into an erupting arachnid nest. Another, meanwhile, brings one of Gammell’s most distressing drawings (from ‘The Dream’) to life: a corpulent, smiling spectre, shuffling ever closer to her victim along red-lit hospital corridors.
The problem is, each story-based sequence launches with hardly any context, which will leave those unfamiliar with Schwartz’s work, or the tales much of it is based on, feeling a little nonplussed. If you’ve not read ‘Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!’ for example, the dog-and-chimney build up to its contorting monster’s arrival will be more of a head-scratcher than a backbone-shiverer.
Beyond this, Zoe Colletti thankfully lends some emotive weight as the abandonment-issue-suffering Stella, whose book-burglary sets the deadly story-weaving events in motion. And her quest to put an end to ghost-girl Sarah’s terror-writing requires the unravelling of an intriguing little mystery, which will feel familiar to fans of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak. But you still can’t help feeling that, despite its episodic shock treats, this storybook would really have benefited from having a stronger spine.