Passion projects are the only kind Guillermo del Toro makes, but “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is even closer to his heart than most. At an event in Hollywood, where the trailer and a first-look scene were unveiled Thursday morning, the filmmaker began by fondly recalling his first encounter with Alvin Schwartz’s spooky children’s book. He was at a bookstore in San Antonio, TX and “came upon this volume that had an irresistible title and cover illustration,” both of which are imprinted in the memories of readers of a certain age — though pitched toward kiddos, “Scary Stories” isn’t entirely age-appropriate.
The actual book didn’t disappoint — “It was like having a campfire between the two covers,” del Toro said — and so he found himself recommending it to friends of all ages in the years to follow. Eventually he bought the rights to the key illustrations, which “led to a lot of financial and marital problems,” and now, years later, he’s producing the film adaptation directed by André Øvredal. Described by del Toro as “the one and only filmmaker we approached,” the “Trollhunter” and “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” helmer was unfamiliar with the book until receiving the screenplay because “in Norway, it was never released.”
Evincing a strong bromance vibe — their friendship began on Twitter, where the “Pan’s Labyrinth” auteur would frequently sing Øvredal’s praises — the two discussed everything from the movie’s late-1960s setting (“a time when stories still affected everyone,” according to del Toro), to the difficulties of turning a series of stories into a cohesive narrative. “This is not an anthology movie,” Øvredal clarified, but rather a single story that weaves the books’ (there are three) mythology into a larger whole.
“We did ‘American Idol’ with the stories in the writers’ room,” del Toro said of that process, and “distilled it to the ones everyone remembers the most.” He likened the result to a “greatest hits” version of Schwartz’s unsettling tales. “They’re all supernatural,” he added. “We like creatures, in case you couldn’t tell.”
In the clip shown, a teenager eats a stew he finds in the refrigerator while two friends on the other side of a walkie talkie implore him not to. They’ve come across a book of stories that’s pages fill in as they’re being read, and everything in it corresponds to this hapless boy’s actions. He isn’t the only character, alas, as a corpse is wandering through his otherwise empty house crying out, “Who took my big toe?” You can probably guess what’s in that stew — and how well it all ends for the teen.
Those few minutes may not qualify as “elevated horror” the way something like Jordan Peele’s “Us” and Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” would, but the creature designs in particular show del Toro’s influence. As for which of those creatures frightens him the most, he answered unequivocally: the Pale Lady. A quick glance at her will give many viewers the same reaction — and have them hoping the movie is as unnerving as she is.