Review: 'Scary Stories to
Tell in the Dark'

Guillermo del Toro-produced adaptation delivers classic horror, nostalgia and commentary
FRIGHT NIGHT: Adapted from the beloved series of creepy short stories, 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark' gets the Guillermo del Toro treatment.

Viewers with complaints about the whiteness and apoliticallity of Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood may feel a bit relieved with the way Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark views the era. It matches a lethal Halloween season with the 1968 election of Richard Nixon and the escalation of the Vietnam War. And it underscores the discrimination against a new Latino kid in town, Ramon (Michael Garza).

Once upon a time In Mill Valley, Pa., 1968, a trio of high school rejects prepares for the holiday. Director Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter) sets the stage deftly. The freckly, nerdy Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a devout horror fan and budding writer, is possibly the only girl in the Keystone state whose walls are covered with pictures of Bela Lugosi. The fussy Auggie (Wes Anderson vet Gabriel Rush) is going this Halloween costumed as Pierrot, the commedia dell'arte character Bowie dressed as on the cover of Ashes to Ashes. The puffy white clown suit—"For the last time, it's Pierrot!"—is a true bully magnet. The boy's dear pal is the young wiseass Chuck (Austin Zajur), who plans a stinky Halloween revenge on their trio of jock tormentors. But Chuck little realizes that his pesky glamorpuss sister (Sue Lyon lookalike Natalie Ganzhorn) is riding with the thugs that night.

Stella, Auggie, Chuck and their new acquaintance Ramon round off their Halloween by exploring the local haunted house. It's a shuttered brick mansion once owned by the paper-mill barons who founded their town. They find a secret chamber with a ledger of stories, which are written—to borrow Nabokov's ominous turn of phrase—"in some peculiar form of red ink." Each short tale predicts the horrible fates awaiting these poor souls.

"This is the reason I don't read books!" Chuck yelps.

It's a very PG-13 rampage, never more violent than an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Phantasms include a who-stole-my-golden-arm style walking corpse, a tangerine-sized zit that has a life of its own, a croaking creature of severed pieces that tumbles down a chimney and a cornfield scarecrow who has had enough of being kicked around. The scares are old-fashioned enough to be a surprise to a kid. Some of them are nicely turned: Lorraine Toussaint, who played Amelia Boynton Robinson in Selma, portrays an elderly, palsied obeah-woman singing "The Worms Go In..." in a minor key.

Scary Stories... works up an unusual amount of feeling, right where you'd least expect it. Dean Norris, who played the DEA cop Hank on Breaking Bad, only has a couple of scenes as Stella's father, yet he's quite touching as a man abandoned, shut off and overworked. The comedy always works, and the art direction is evocative right down to the wallpaper. The cast are far more than the usual cyphers fed to the meat grinder, and there is a sense of loss in almost every supernatural attack.

Garza, who has the natural sensuality of Sal Mineo, is impressive here. As for Colletti, she's wonderful. It is a bit hard to imagine a young lady of her age having a lobby card for Mesa of Lost Women, just like it's hard to imagine people applauding something as tired as The Wrecking Crew in Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.

The ending was a letdown; it confuses the need of a character to face his personal demons with his need to fight a war the movie has so-far denounced. The contrast of the horror of Nixon with the buried history of this small town is likely the work of producer and screen story writer Guillermo del Toro; it's reminiscent of the way he linked his aquatic romance The Shape of Water with the crimes of the Cold War. The best scene here definitely seems like Del Toro's work: a chilly sequence where Chuck is cornered in a series of red-lit corridors by a monster—obese, shuffling slowly, grinning blissfully from ear to ear ... not that it has ears.

If there's one thing del Toro—great admirer of the 1930s Universal Classic Monsters that he is— understands, it's that the theatrical slowness of those night creatures was a feature, not a bug. When you're immortal, you have all the time in the world, and can really enjoy the business of terror.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
PG-13; 114 Mins.

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