Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may be a Guillermo del Toro production, yet his singular directorial vision still feels present. Along with director Andre Ovredal, he incorporates his traditional mix of historical context and supernatural horror found in films such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. In this feature, the 1968 Presidential election and the Vietnam War attempt to act as an analog for the titular haunted tales.
While the significance of the historical analog remains unclear, Scary Stories still works as a straightforward ghost story. In addition, it has the traditional machinations of a slasher film, showing a group of teenagers getting picked off one by one by an ominous force. Unfortunately, it also reinforces another tired horror cliche: Dumb characters. After the main group of friends enters a creepy old house, one of them, Stella (Zoe Colletti), decides to take a book from the house and inevitably, bad things start happening.
As a result of that trope, the audience can tell right off the bat what’ll happen next. Granted, because it’s a horror film, it’s meant to be thrill-seeking escapism where you know where the plot goes yet don’t overthink it. However, the story still could’ve been elevated and delve deeper into the historical allegories it was trying to get across.
If there are any positives to be found, there’s the sequence adapted from the famous “Big Toe” story from the anthology book which the film is based on. Hearing the ghost cry, “Where’s my big toe?” brought back memories of reading that horrifying story when I was a kid. It’s thanks in large part to Javier Botet, the actor who voices the Toe Monster. The creature design on the Toe Monster, and all the other monsters, is also quite detailed. Each monster is very peculiar looking and bound to give young children nightmares.
Adults, however, might not be creeped out by this. If there’s anything super frightening and cringe inducing, it’s that Lorraine Toussaint, from Orange is the New Black and the criminally unsung sci-fi film Fast Color, is badly wasted. Her character’s only purpose is to tell the teenagers that the book they’re carrying is evil and they’re in danger. Nothing more, nothing less.
Despite having a cliched character, actress Zoe Colletti still gives a commendable performance. Also, Michael Garza who plays Ramon, a runaway whom Stella befriends, impresses in equal measure. Lastly, Lana Del Rey’s spectral cover of the song “Season of the Witch,” which is used in the opening sequence, proves to be another highlight.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark isn’t entirely scary and the story doesn’t quite come together. Yet, it’s still slightly saved by a few solid performances and its revival of one short story from the source material. It does it job at being a good horror flick for a night out of the house, but it still isn’t as bold as it probably could’ve been.