It’s the end of October in this smalltown in America, 1968, and with an election on the way it seems there will be big changes ahead, but for Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) she has already endured a big change when her mother left her father (Dean Norris) recently. She is baffled as to why this happened, but secretly blames herself and suspects this is based in truth, not that she would say so to her dad, but as an aspiring horror writer she really should be throwing herself into the Halloween celebrations. She is simply not feeling it, though when her two friends, Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush) encourage her to put on a costume and join them, she reluctantly agrees...
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a series of books written in the nineteen-eighties by author Alvin Schwartz, collecting his short horror stories for kids with a nice, shivery mood to them which said kids responded to. If he had lived longer, he might have been an R.L. Stine figure, a Stephen King for the younger set, but it was not to be, though his work did not go out of print after his death, gathering fans down the years - though apparently not enough fans, as this big screen adaptation, despite having Guillermo Del Toro's name attached, while profitable did not exactly become a blockbuster sensation, rendering its hopes for a series somewhat up in the air, no matter the ending.
Or left us hanging, would be a better description, prompting some viewers to ponder that if they did not anticipate a follow-up, would they have wrapped things up a lot more neatly? But though this received a lukewarm reception, the common complaint being it was too scary for little kids who should have been the target audience but not scary enough for their adult counterparts, thanks to its slick and well-designed appearance it did pick up a few fans. Now, a cult success with this amount of budget could not be what the studio wanted, but it did bode well for it to be rediscovered some time down the line by movie watchers who were less bothered about the consensus.
Actually, this was perfectly fine, and in places very strong indeed, its director André Øvredal taking a break from grown-up chillers to apply his undoubted talents to a more populist vein of shocker than he had been used to, a stepping stone to a more mainstream setting maybe, though he did return to his native Norway after helming Scary Stories rather than try his luck further in Hollywood. This indicated a job for hire here and a passion project for his next endeavour, but do not think he was operating at half strength simply because he was aiming his work at kids, for while it was a relatively bloodless PG-13 in the States, in the United Kingdom it was rated 15, highlighting that he and Del Toro could not help themselves and had rendered this too near the knuckle for those who were discovering the books.
And besides, while this did come across as a King effort in the vein of the superpopular IT: Chapter One with its young cast battling a supernatural evil, there was a distinctive quality to the monsters that benefited the fact they were not allowed to get gory. Seeing how they got around that limitation and try to be scary anyway was intriguing, basically they went for the abundant jump scares and grotesque makeup and situations, so a spider bite on Natalie Gerzhorn's cheek in true urban legend style grows into a boil and when a single spider leg emerges from it, countless arachnids follow. Plus this being a Del Toro production, some nicely crafted monsters with individual powers are around as well now that Stella has liberated a magical book of stories from the local haunted house. Adding colour was the time period and election, equating Richard Nixon's success to the ghastlies running rampant, with the Vietnam War a genuine horror facing draft dodger Michael Garza, though this did not tie into the fantastical business too well. Overall, maybe the wider culture wasn't attuned to it, but more sympathetic horror fans may be pleasantly surprised. Music by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich.