Between Halloween and Election Night, 1968 – while the events of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo must be taking place across the country – a small group of teens in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, are beset by phantom fiends keyed to their own neuroses/backstories which emerge from a storybook filched from a haunted house to claim them. These archetypes – scary scarecrow, doughy monster mom, dismembered ‘jangly man’, toe-reclaiming skeletal zombie – are also drawn from the sketch-like anecdotes collected and embroidered by Alvin Schwartz in his Scary Stories books. The script is by Dan and Kevin Hageman, of The Lego Movie and Hotel Transylvania, and producer Guillermo del Toro, with a story credit for franchise specialists Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (of the Feast films, Saw sequels and Piranha 3DD). That credit tangle alone suggests some spadework in turning Schwartz’s books into a horror film pitched at those too old for Goosebumps yet not quite up to A Nightmare on Elm Street, and director Andre Ovredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) goes with scary rather than horrible as a tone … some of the one-pagers are simply excuses for set-pieces, which almost all go on a few beats too long as the very basic set-ups, most of which have been seen in many previous movies, make for overorchestrated, protracted horror sequences as kids meet horrible fates.
We get the old saw about the spider bite on a high school princess’s cheek hatching out a flood of little arachnids, for instance … and the one about the kid who habitually takes his frustrations out on a scarecrow who is eventually forced to replace ‘Harold’ up on a pole in the wheat field … and so on. The lead is Stella Nicholls (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a horror-loving girl with abandonment issues, who identifies with the town spook, one Sarah Bellows, who originally wrote the stories that now capture and punish the innocent along with the guilty, and most of the other young leads are shrill one-note types it’s hard to get too upset about. Indeed, Gabriel Rush is so irritating as the supposedly sympathetic Auggie that it’s annoying he survives for so long into the film. As usual, adults are either idiots – the Sheriff (Gil Bellows) who empties his gun at a snarly severed head – or ignore everything going on – Stella’s Dad (Dean Norris) literally sleeps through the film, until he stirs from his chair to give a cheer-up soundbyte – except for black folks, who have mystic wisdom … and are especially wise in not getting too involved with the whining, curse-invoking/defying white folks beyond coughing up a bit of exposition.
Typical of the way contemporary horror cinema (cf: the Conjuring/Annabelle films) only partially co-opts a half-remembered past is the way the film deploys some nostalgic elements of its period – including multiple versions of Donovan’s ‘Season of the Witch’ – but can’t bring itself to go all the way. At a drive-in, Stella bonds with draft evader Ramon (Michael Garza) over Night of the Living Dead, but they leave before the ending and don’t have to confront George Romero’s political point – and, at the root of the town curse is a mercury poisoning industrial scandal (I’ll bet del Toro is remembering John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy) that suggests evil capitalists have warped America’s dreams and blamed an albino outsider for their own monstrousness. But the film ends with a lecture as the heroine tells off the spook for exceeding her punitive remit – and, in a development that reduces a huge political issue to a token personal drama, Ramon enlists rather than resists.