A mixed bag of ghoulish tricks that might’ve been better served by an October release date, this adaptation of author Alvin Schwartz and artist Stephen Gammell’s creeptastic HarperCollins kid-lit frightmares packs a visually disturbing – and memorable – wallop but is ultimately undone by some less than remarkable character development and an unnecessary, if currently contemporaneous, pseudo-political undertones. Which isn’t to say it’s not a blast to see Gammell’s eerie, Francis Bacon-esque illustrations come to herky-jerky and horrifying life, because it is, absolutely. Like screenwriter (alongside Dan and Kevin Hageman) and producer Guillermo del Toro’s unforgettable “Pale Man” in Pan’s Labyrinth, Scary Stories… includes a bevy of phantasmagorical beasties, among them a vengeful scarecrow in serious need of some DDT, a Pale Lady who, like your Jewish grandmother, just loves to hug you, and an arachnophobic outburst that almost (but not quite) rivals E.G. Marshall’s ickily chitinous demise in Creepshow’s “They’re Creeping Up on You” segment. Parents of impressionable preteens be forewarned, it’s a hard PG-13, albeit one so gorgeously lit and shot (by cinematographer Roman Osin, fresh from working with Trollhunter director Øvredal on Fantastic Fest favorite The Autopsy of Jane Doe) that I found the freakishly inventive imagery lingering in my mind long after the house lights went up.
For reasons known only to the screenwriters (a team including Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton of Saw IV, V, VI and 3D and The Collector), this adaptation has been set in small-town America in 1968, with televisions repeatedly invoking the Vietnam War, the pending election of President Nixon, and where the local drive-in is showing – shocker! – George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. It’s in this culturally incendiary time that misfit teens Stella (Colletti), Auggie (Rush), and Chuck (Zajur), in a framing device not of the source material, discover a mysterious book deep within the bowels of the local haunted manse. Originally the property of 19th century local legend-cum-bugaboo Sarah Bellows, the musty old tome in question turns out to be a self-writing storybook of horrors, and one that quickly turns out to be foretelling the grim fates awaiting our protagonists and their chief antagonist and generic school bully, Tommy (Abrams). There’s also a nomadic Hispanic character, Ramón (Garza), who appears to have been added to the mix chiefly to evoke a different kind of outsider status than the kids he falls in with.
In this way the various stories from Schwartz’s original trilogy are incorporated into a patchwork cinematic reworking that holds true to the books’ deep-down trauma-hound illustrations – teen audience members may well hesitate before popping that zit in the mirror – while struggling to find a single tone throughout.
Although he did not direct, del Toro’s influence is front and center, particularly in the patently unnecessary references to the current real world’s fraught racial issues. Ramón’s car is spray-painted with the word “wetback” and the town’s chief of police comes across as a minor league Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The combining of the reel-world’s “scary stories” and the current zeitgeist’s xenophobic skirmishes over race and immigration feels forced and the constant equivocation of former presidential rat bastard Richard Milhous with current demagogue Donald John serves only to detract from what audiences and longtime fans of Schwartz’s books will be expecting. Scary Stories ... has enough bat-shit spooky bugaboos up its sleeve without adding racial politics into the mix, something del Toro’s been doing (and doing much less ham-fistedly) at least since 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone. Admittedly, much of this will go over the heads of the film’s target demographic, but still. It’s ultimately a memorably unnerving film and a legitimate gateway drug for budding young fans of surreal and, well, scary movies, but this lifelong lover of all things dark, dank, and dreadful thinks that it could have been so much more effective sans the pointed polemics.
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