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.