If you were a kid growing up in the ’80s or ’90s who read Alvin Schwartz’ 1981 spook-tale collection “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (or its two sequels, published in 1984 and 1991), you may have felt like the stories added up to your own private “Twilight Zone,” to be consumed with a flashlight under the covers. They had a subversive wonderstruck creepiness intertwined with a weirdly comforting morality. Of course, much of the impact came from Stephen Gammell’s drawings, which were jaw-droppingly horrific for the illustrations in a book aimed at children. His melty black-and-white images of skeletons and corpses and rats and scarecrows and wounded bodies were at once ghostly and fleshy, like dreams with a quality of decay. You could call his style pop-art Francis Bacon, but it also owed something to the children’s-book illustrator Garth Williams (of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” fame). His drawings were over-the-top EC Comics visions given an elegant Victorian timelessness.
The drawings, like the stories themselves, were extreme enough to provoke some of the reflexive repression that the original horror comics did back in the ’50s. Parents periodically tried to get the “Scary Stories” volumes tossed out of school libraries. (This was the ’80s, the age of “Footloose” and Tipper Gore; regulating, and even banning, popular culture was back in vogue.)
But it’s doubtful that there will a comparable controversy surrounding the film version of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Produced by (among others) Guillermo del Toro, and directed by the Norwegian art-monster maverick André Øvredal (“Trollhunter”), the movie faithfully re-creates the peak moments of half a dozen of Schwartz’ most popular stories, weaving them together — or maybe we should just say Scotch-taping them — into a patchy narrative set in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1968.
If you want to know what it looks like when the heroine of “The Red Spot” watches a nest of spiders erupt out of the oversize pimple on her cheek, or when the young sap of “Harold” finds himself turning into a scarecrow, with straw shooting out of his mouth, body, and limbs, “Scary Stories” literalizes those moments quite handily. Yet there’s no aura to them; the emotions of the stories have been lost. We could be watching the standard ghoulish CGI effects that take place in any horror movie of the week.
The original tales in “Scary Stories” had an insidious, pre-media homespun awe. In the film version of “Scary Stories,” they’re just momentary Grand Guignol tidbits — literally, in the case of “The Big Toe” — served up like the greatest hits they are.
That may be enough to satisfy the series’ multiple generations of fans. (It never seemed to bother the masses of “Harry Potter” readers that the film adaptations lacked the books’ magical screwpot Dickensian atmosphere.) Yet if you watch “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” simply as the movie it is, what you’ll experience is a period teenage horror film at once wide-eyed and scattershot, one that never begins to sustain a mood, and that projects, a bit too callowly, its eagerness to cash in on the demo of “It” and “Stranger Things.” If the movie had simply been a collection of short tales, it might have been effective (though omnibus films are notoriously difficult to bring off, or to turn into hits). In attempting to meld the stories together and give them some sketchy coherence, the movie basically becomes an extended framing device that’s larger than any of the stories in it.
“Scary Stories” pivots around Stella (the avidly captivating Zoe Colletti), a brainy high schooler who goes out on Halloween with her nerd friends and drops by a drive-in movie theater that’s playing “Night of the Living Dead” (the film opened on Oct. 1, 1968, making their casual familiarity with it possible, if none too plausible). She then leads them over to the local haunted house, which was once occupied by the Bellows clan, whose daughter, Sarah Bellows, is presented as one of those Gothic sacrificial-lamb waif-demons whose abuse gave rise to the horror we’re now watching. In this case, that takes the form of a dusty book of horror stories, literally written in blood (though with very elegant script), that Stella steals from the mansion. As she opens the book’s pages, she sees that Sarah’s stories are literally writing themselves.
You’d think, in a movie adaptation of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” that the first thing the filmmakers would want to do is re-create the squishy spectral look and aura of Stephen Gammell’s drawings. But just as the book series was re-issued, 30 years later, with a more conventional set of illustrations (to great protest — the publisher than realized its mistake and went back to the originals), the movie doesn’t totally embrace the Gammell vision. It’s true to it, in a token way, with a grinning disembodied corpse that comes together in too hyperkinetic a fashion. But the only sequence that truly creeps is the one where Stella’s testy friend Chuck (Austin Zajur) stands in a red-drenched hospital corridor and confronts, from every angle, a pale rotund ghoul with a peeled face — it’s like he’s seeing the Ghost of Jacob Marley crossed with the bathtub crone from “The Shining.” And for a moment, you shudder. But that’s the one time that “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” puts the night back in nightmare.