It’s Halloween, 1968 in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania; Nixon is running for president, young men are being drafted to Vietnam and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) are out for one final trick or treating adventure. And so, the scene is set for political allegory and real-life anxieties to bubble to the surface as boys start disappearing into thin air and young women go mad with worry. Even the high-school play pleasingly feeds into the themes with a neat nod to a production of Bye Bye Birdie.
Based on the book series by Alvin Schwartz, directed by André Øvredal and co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, the film acts as a chilling primer to horror for a teen audience that have outgrown Goosebumps.
The terror begins when the kids head to the abandoned Bellows house on the edge of town, after scarpering from the local bully Tommy (Austin Abrams nailing the role of an a-hole) and meeting mysterious stranger Ramon (Michael Garza). It’s there that Stella discovers a cursed book, apparently written in the blood of children by a ghost that lays it cruel gaze on the teenagers. Each night the book steals a life, which Stella can see happening in real time as the stories begin writing themselves. It’s up to Stella to stop the curse and save her friends.
The young cast are great. Colletti, in the lead role of a horror obsessed writer delivers a potent blend of innocence, melancholy and determination. Through her, the film references Night Of The Living Dead in a comical and tense drive-in scene that establishes a convincing and quite lovely rapport with Garza. Zajur may have taken notes from the Evan Peters’ school of acting – he’s all flared nostrils and big eyes in his role of an irritatingly loud friend.
The film plays out as a series of tied-together short supernatural stories with some working better than others. The gross-out nature of The Big Toe is aided by bone crunching sound design and a patient ambience that ekes full suspense out of its inevitable outcome and The Red Spot nicely luxuriates in its body horror. However, the film runs out of steam as it progresses with atmosphere replaced by a reliance on CG monsters to fuel the fear.