Macabre scarecrows. Shambling zombies. Swollen boogeymen. “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is a movie full of bizarre and disturbing monsters. Of course, that’s not unusual for the work of producer Guillermo del Toro, whose movies quite regularly feature a menagerie of grotesque creatures. Inspired by the series of grade school horror anthologies of the same name, “Scary Stories” has del Toro’s trademark monstrosities. However, it also holds true to its grade school roots. “Scary Stories” is more campfire fare than violent exploitation cinema.
Stella (Zoe Colletti) is a girl on the verge of adolescence in the mid-1960s, and she and her friends are dressing up for one last Halloween. However, a run-in with a local bully sends the plucky youngsters, along with a new friend, Ramón (Michael Garza), into the depths of a local haunted house. Legend has it that a malevolent spirit occupies the home, whisking children to their doom. The friends’ exploration bring them across a book of horror stories belonging to the ghost, and Stella, a young writer, steals it away. Little does Stella realize she’s set something terrible in motion. That night, the first of several disappearances occurs.
And so the story sees Stella and her friends desperately seeking a way of breaking the book’s curse before its monsters can claim them. Tonally, the story has a tight line to walk. The stakes are high for the young heroes, and the creatures hunting them down are often ghastly. But the film doesn’t always manage to get this horror to mesh with the lighthearted, Disney Channel sensibilities of its young protagonists. Moments of melodrama clash with witty preteen banter.
That isn’t to say there isn’t any charm to the performances given by Colletti, Garza and Austin Zajur and Gabriel Rush, who play Stella’s friends Chuck and Auggie, respectively. In some ways, the film calls to mind 2017’s, “It,” another horror movie that pitted young heroes against existential horror while evoking the family-friendly adventure films of Steven Spielberg. “Scary Stories” doesn’t quite manage the tonal consistency of “It,” but it still creates a cast of characters who you want to root for overcoming the darkness threatening them.
And “Scary Stories” doesn’t pull its punches. As the movie’s PG-13 rating suggests, there’s relatively little blood and gore, yet it still manages to find disturbing ways to terrorize and end its characters, even characters it’s devoted screen time to building the audience’s empathy for. Though it may not be a traditionally violent horror movie, “Scary Stories” is still willing to go some creative if uncomfortable places.
“Scary Stories” is, above all, an earnest movie. As the opening narration makes plainly clear, it’s a movie about the power of stories, both to hurt and to heal. It’s a movie about how we make and define monsters as well as how we process and cope with victimhood. While it may not rise to the caliber of del Toro’s directorial work (e.g., “The Shape of Water,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), he and director André Øvredal have still managed a fun, horror-flavored family adventure.