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SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

Producer: Guillermo del Toro, Sean DAniel, Jason F. Brown, J. Miles Dale, Elizabeth Grave, Joshua Long and Roberto Grane
Director: Andre Ovredal
Writer: Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman
Stars: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint and Kathleen Pollarrd
Studio: Lionsgate

C

Back in 2011, Guillermo del Toro oversaw the making of a movie based on a television film that he remembered watching as a child—“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” Now he’s produced, and co-written, another based on the books of “gateway horror” short stories for youngsters written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell between 1981 and 1991, which he’s said he was particularly taken with. Though it includes retellings of a number of them, however, it’s not precisely an anthology film; rather it inserts them into a single narrative in which a group of youngsters are menaced by monsters from the stories conjured up by the vengeful spirit of a girl who’d been brutalized by her family years ago—a spirit the kids accidentally release. The result is an odd hybrid that mixes something like “Creepshow” with “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

The threesome of locals at the center of things consists of brainy Stella (Zoë Margaret Colletti), excitable Chuck (Austin Zajur) and straight-laced Auggie (Gabriel Rush). On Halloween night, 1968, they get back at town bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), only to become the prêt of him and his thuggish pals. They escape only by climbing into the car of Ramon (Michael Garza), a stranger just passing through Mill Valley who’s stopped to watch “The Night of the Living Dead” at the drive-in.

They then decide to show their new buddy the old Bellows mansion, whose family owned the paper mill that gave the town its name. They tell him that Sarah Bellows was locked away in a secret room by her relatives when she threatened to disclose a terrible secret, but told the town’s children creepy stories through the wall. Though the Bellows are long gone and the mill shuttered, the deserted house still stands, and the spirit of Sarah is supposed to dwell within it.

Naturally the kids go exploring in the place and discover not only that secret room, but Sarah’s book of stories in which—now released from long slumber—she literally writes new stories targeting the interlopers, who also include Tommy and Chuck’s older sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), who’d been out with Tommy. Each will be attacked by a creature drawn from one of the Schwartz-Gammell stories as they attempt to track down the truth about Sarah and convince her to cease her attacks.

As might be expected of any movie co-produced by del Toro and directed by André Øvredal (“Trollhunter,” “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”), “Stories” is stylishly made, with plenty of period detail in the production design by David Brisbin and set decoration by Patricia Larman, accentuated by the elegant widescreen cinematography by Roman Osin and creature effects designed to mimic Gammell’s illustrations. In the final analysis, the movie’s problem is that though it tries to be visually faithful to the stories, except for a few conventional jump cuts it never manages to be truly scary: though not as kid-friendly and jokey as the “Goosebumps” pictures, it’s not appreciably more frightening.

The young cast is game, and at a time when “It” has returned with such success to the big screen and “Stranger Things” has become a phenomenon on the small one, the youngsters don’t register all that strongly except for Zajur, who overdoes the skittishness, and Abrams, who exaggerates the nastiness. As to the adults in the cast, they play distinctly second fiddle. Dean Norris is practically somnolent as Stella’s father, and Gill Bellows overwrought as local sheriff. There’s also a strange cameo by Lorraine Toussaint as an elderly woman who was once a servant in the Bellows mansion, around whom rumors of black magic swirled; it’s an embarrassing sequence that feels quite out of place.

So too do the intermittent references to Richard Nixon—archival footage of his 1968 campaign, and the news of his election (the story culminates as he’s declared the winner). Is the point that Nixon’s a monster, too—maybe the biggest one around? (The Vietnam War is involved in the backstory Ramon eventually reveals, too.) Or perhaps the allusions are intended to point to our contemporary political situation. Whatever, it all comes across as clumsy.

It’s nice that del Toro wants to celebrate the horror artifacts he appreciates from the past, whether they be old TV movies or cherished children’s books. When the outcome works, as in “The Shape of Water,” which showed his love of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” it can be transcendent. When it doesn’t, as here, it falls pretty flat. “Scary Stories” ends with a quest reminiscent of the one Stephen King fashioned for “Salems Lot.” It suggests that sequels are planned, but whether they will be forthcoming is iffy. Nostalgia, after all, has its limits.

BRIAN BANKS

Producer: Amy Baer, Shivani Rawat and Monica Levinson
Director: Tom Shadyac
Writer: Doug Atchison
Stars: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Xosha Roquemore, Melanie Liburd, Tiffany Dupont, Jose Miguel Vasquez and Morgan Freeman
Studio: Bleecker Street

C

Earnest but prosaic, “Brian Banks” tells the true-life story of a young man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit who, after his release, enlists the California Innocence Project to help him get his conviction vacated. It’s a particularly difficult situation because he accepted a plea bargain in which his “nolo contendere” was the legal equivalent of a confession. No cash awards for guessing the outcome of his struggle.

Actually, what happens is a fairly well-known matter of public record, since Banks later became fairly well-known as the oldest rookie to play in the NFL, when at 28 he appeared in four preseason games with the Atlanta Falcons.

That stint, however brief, was the culmination of a dream Banks (played by Aldis Hodge) had embraced since he was a standout athlete at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where in 2002, as a junior having already committed to playing college ball at the University of Southern California, he was falsely accused of rape by a fellow student (here called Kennisha Rice, and played by Xosha Roquemore). Under pressure from her mother, Rice brings charges against him with the police; they will also file suit against the school district and win an award of $1.5 million.

On advice of his court-appointed lawyer, who suggested that he would receive probation, Banks pleaded no contest, but the judge sentenced him to six years’ in prison. In prison Banks took to heart the message of his counselor (Morgan Freeman, uncredited) not to give in to anger and try to take positive charge of his life, but upon his release, Banks finds his options limited by the need to register as a sex offender and wear an ankle monitor, watched over by his stern parole officer (Dorian Missick).

The situation makes it difficult to find work, and impossible to follow his football dream. And although he begins a romance with Karina (Melanie Liburd), a trainer at a gym where he applies for work, he has to overcome her misgivings when she finds out about his past. That’s why he tries repeatedly to enlist the help of the Innocence Project, though its head Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) explains that the obstacles to winning an overturning of his conviction are almost insuperable.

Nonetheless Brooks, pressured by his staff, is drawn to Banks’s side, and when Kennisha unexpectedly contacts Brian, it provides a slim opening for the case to be reopened. The hurdles are significant however, even after Justin persuades the D.A. to join in his efforts to have Banks exonerated.

The strongest element of the film lies in the committed performance by Hodge, who captures the necessary mixture of passion and vulnerability. In her way Roquemore is equally convincing, moving from naïve coquettishness toward the start to worn-down defeatism at the close. Liburd and Sherri Shepherd, as Brian’s ever-supportive mother, are okay, and Freeman contributes his customary gravitas. But Kinnear brings little but his lightweight brand of likability to Brooks, and under the rather lackadaisical hand of Tom Shadyac, the rest of the supporting cast ranges from overeager to bland.

With unremarkable technical work from production designer Teresa Mastropierro, cinematographer Ricardo Diaz and editor Greg Hayden, “Brian Banks” plays like a docu-drama more suited to the small screen than the megaplex, but Hodge’s performance is deserving of notice—as is also the fact that its story of a false accusation by a woman against a man might cause some consternation in a climate that is inclined to take such claims as true unless decisively disproven.