Viewers with complaints about the whiteness and apoliticality of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood may feel a bit relieved with the way Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark views the late-’60s era. It matches a lethal Halloween season with the 1968 election of Richard Nixon and underscores the discrimination against Ramon (Michael Garza), the new Latinx kid in town.
Once upon a time in Mill Valley, PA, 1968: a trio of high school rejects prepares for the holiday. Director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) sets the stage deftly. The freckly, nerdy Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is possibly the only girl in the Keystone state who covers her walls with pictures of Bela Lugosi. The fussy Auggie (Wes Anderson vet Gabriel Rush) is going costumed as Pierrot, the commedia dell’arte character Bowie dressed as on the cover of Ashes to Ashes, this Halloween. The puffy white clown suit is worse than just a bully magnet, it’s also something he has to explain to the local yokels. Auggie’s pal is the young wiseass Chuck (Austin Zajur) who plans a stinky Halloween revenge on their trio of jock tormentors.
Stella, Auggie and Chuck and their new acquaintance Ramon round off their Halloween by exploring the local haunted house, 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, as Nabokov would phrase, “in some peculiar form of red ink,” each short tale predicting the horrible fates of the characters. The young detectives comb through the local archives to understand the ghost’s need for vengeance.
It’s a very PG 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 reconstitutes itself 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, and are based on a throbbing, old-movie sense of menace.
It’s based on a novel by Alvin Schwartz, a writer working some of the same lucrative terrain as R. L. Stine. Yet there’s an unusual amount of feeling here, right where you’d least expect it. Dean Norris, who played the DEA cop Hank in Breaking Bad, only has a couple of scenes as Stella’s father. Yet he’s beautifully sad as a man overworked and long-ago abandoned by his wife. Norris is evidence of how successfully Scary Stories… roots its horror in a sense of pity. The comedy always works, and the art direction is evocative right down to the wallpaper. The cast is far more than the usual cyphers fed to the meat grinder, except in one case, where the victim richly deserves it; there is a sense of loss in almost every supernatural attack.
The ending is a letdown—it confuses the need of a character to face his personal demons with his need to fight a war the movie had rightfully denounced. Otherwise, the linking of political horror with the buried history of this small town is likely something producer/screen story writer Guillermo del Toro added, in the same way he tinged his strange love story The Shape of Water with the crimes of the Cold War. The best scene here seems Del Toro’s work: a chilly sequence where Chuck is cornered in a series of red-lit corridors by a monster; obese, lank-haired, shuffling slowly, grinning blissfully from ear to ear….not that it has ears.
If there’s one thing del Toro understands—great admirer of the Universal horror of the 1930s that he is—is 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’ is playing in wide release.