Oscar-winning horrormeister Guillermo del Toro has put kids at the center of his movies before — “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone” — but they’ve been decidedly adult in their themes and terrors. What would Del Toro-lite be like when adapting a hair-raising favorite from the glut of preteen horror series out there?
It makes sense, then, that scare cinema’s King of the Monsters chose the late Alvin Schwartz’s popular but controversial “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” book series, first published in the early ’80s, as a vehicle to recruit new pint-sized horror movie fans. Spare bites of the macabre culled from folklore, Schwartz’s campfire-ready classics evoke a recognizable world visited by the spectral, strange, and sometimes just plainly evil, while Stephen Gammell’s famously eerie ink drawings — like the disturbed scrawls of a lunatic — were graphic enough to trigger book bans across the country.
But the anthologies aren’t linked by any grander story line, so sibling screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman and director André Øvredal (“Trollhunter”), working from a story by producer Del Toro along with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, take a very trendy approach. They wrap some of Schwartz’s more viscerally creepy tales (scarecrow revenge, a toe-hunting corpse, the ghastliest zit ever) inside the skin of a rollicking horror adventure in which a plucky group of teens unravel a haunted house mystery with ties to a town’s past sins, facing personal demons along the way. Yes, that also sounds like Stephen King’s “It,” only the PG-13 version that sacrifices blood, sex and traumatic violence for exhilarating ickiness and loud jump scares. (So more like “Stranger Things,” because again, nothing’s new anymore.)
It’s also mildly political in setting, in that the year is 1968 in sleepy Mill Valley, and young men are being sent to Vietnam, Nixon is soon to be president, and a new teenager in town named Ramon (Michael Garza) is quickly tagged as a suspicious “other.” Anchoring the narrative, though, is horror nerd and child of divorce Stella (Zoe Colletti), an introverted high schooler who reluctantly agrees to a Halloween excursion with outcast pals Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). Once Ramon joins their group after a confrontation with school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), the quartet break into the town’s own haunted mansion, which once housed the troubled, mill-owning Bellows clan, long since vanished under odd circumstances.
A few laughs and cobwebbed freak-outs later, Stella discovers a dusty book: creepy yarns handwritten by Sarah Bellows, the locked-away family pariah whose storytelling was blamed for a series of town deaths. Stella takes the book home, only to find new tales appearing in blood-red ink, starring her friends as victims. Suddenly a dead woman’s imagination becomes these teenagers’ realities.
Unsurprisingly, the investigation into the scares isn’t nearly as fun as the living-nightmare set pieces — explained frights always take a back seat to untethered nastiness running roughshod. So once a draggy period ends, Øvredal and the effects team get plenty of mileage — both digitally rendered and model-sculpted — out of their woolly, Gammell-inspired monsters, especially their grisly take on the disembodied invader from the story “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker!” and a shuffling, misshapen figure resembling a doll-woman.
The kids are a mixed bag of mannered personalities, but lead Colletti is a keeper, effective at simultaneously conveying the sadness of an emotionally struggling kid and the spark of a heroine sharp enough to see through a dangerous game against a deadly spirit. Her Stella, along with Garza’s engagingly serious Ramon, make an appealing Scooby team when it comes to the story’s not-so-hidden message of outsider solidarity, looking past surface fears and finding one’s inner strength.
If you’re not in the mood for messages or social commentary, however, “Scary Stories” is still fertile enough with its accessible gross-outs and giggle shocks to serviceably add to a legacy of kid-centric mainstream mayhem Del Toro clearly loves, and won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release