“I don’t see Scary Stories going out of style any time soon,” recounted the earlier anonymous librarian. “It’s something of a rite of passage for kids — and their librarians who have to talk to scared kids’ parents.”What is it about horror and nostalgia that makes them blend so well? In It, in “Stranger Things” and now in the movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a retro setting emphasizes the work’s roots in a long tradition of popular storytelling. “Nothing really changes” is the implication — even when, as here, the setting is the watershed year 1968.
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books began appearing in 1981, but author Alvin Schwartz drew liberally on preexisting folklore and urban legends. With dreamlike, ghoulish illustrations by Stephen Gammell, the books were both renowned and vilified for terrorizing a generation of elementary schoolers.
A movie version was inevitable. And, thanks in part to the involvement of Guillermo del Toro as cowriter and producer, Scary Stories is the rare PG-13 horror movie that’s genuinely horrifying. Ably directed by André Øvredal (Trollhunter), the movie is too nightmarish for most kids, but teens and adults should find it a creative thrill ride.
Rather than simply present the scary stories in anthology format, del Toro and his cowriters have crafted an overarching narrative. It’s Halloween 1968 in small-town USA, and teenage nerd buddies Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are out for revenge on the school bullies. Their flight from their oppressors brings them to a house reputedly haunted by a Victorian madwoman who filled a book with stories written in children’s blood.