Guillermo del Toro: This is the type of movie where you have fun getting scared
Guillermo del Toro proves he's still the master of storytelling as he delivers chills, thrills and laughs in the screen adaptation of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. Gemma Dunn finds out more
Few nail horror quite like Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican filmmaker - dubbed the 'king of monsters' - has tackled the genre throughout his Oscar-winning career, captivating audiences with movies that are both humanistic and chock-full of mystical, often terrifying creatures.
Though opting to shun the usual tropes, he has long been celebrated for his own unique style.
Take his playful debut feature with Cronos, Gothic romance Crimson Peak and more recently, the critically acclaimed Shape Of Water. While each varies in subject matter, they all harbour vivid colours and the world-famous fantastical-meets-grotesque del Toro trademark.
"As a director, I'm not that interested in scares," he recently told SFX magazine. "I use my horror movies more like a fairytale. I do horror images, but like a fairytale."
The latest project to benefit from his reign of terror is the fittingly titled Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. A decidedly eerie teen horror, directed by Andre Ovredal, and based on the children's book series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz.
Billed as anything but an anthology, the epic, which begins in 1968 America, tells the tale of a group of young misfits who dare to explore their town's infamously haunted house - the cobwebbed former home of the reportedly murderous Sarah Bellows - and discover a book that seemingly has supernatural powers.
Suddenly found to be living out the tome's stories in real time, teens Stella, Ramon, Chuck and Auggie (played by Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur and Gabriel Rush respectively) must face their fears in order to survive.
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For longtime fan del Toro (he so adored the Scary Stories books that he bought several of illustrator Stephen Gammell's sketches decades ago), it was a chance to invent something fresh and exciting.
"We wanted to recreate some of Schwartz's most cherished, scary, fun and entertaining horror tales, but do it in a way that is seamless within one story about a group of friends in the 1960s," explains the 54-year-old, who penned the screenplay and served as a co-producer on the adaptation.
"The beauty of these stories is that they have the eternal appeal of campfire tales that invite people to shiver together in anticipation, even when you hear them again and again," he says.
"In our movie, we add to the fun of themes of friendship, belief, compassion, and the idea that stories can damage or they can heal."
He elaborates: "Friendship, especially when you're a kid, is a saving grace. You have it on Devil's Backbone, a movie of mine, or I admire it in the Amblin movies, but there's a sense of becoming one."
"You never have friends like the ones you have when you're a kid," he muses.
"And I thought it was a good time to tell a story about two girls, one in the past, one in the present, that were ostracised by gossip and stories that were told about them. So, it's all connected to the material."
The time period in which it's set is also of utmost importance: a retro world without any hint of mobile phones or the internet, "where life was truly local, but in a time period that felt catalytic".
And much like his previous features, while kids are at the front and centre (think Pan's Labyrinth), there are still decidedly adult themes.
"The whole ideal of the American Dream and American innocence was shifting as the world became much more complex, and scary in new ways," Del Toro says of the era.
"The Vietnam War itself is sort of a ghost that looms over the town; it's a very unstable time for these kids to undergo this extreme rite of passage."
That was his intention from the get-go, he admits: "When I presented (the screenplay) to Andre, I said, 'It's a movie about the past and it's a movie about now'."
However, whilst the overriding message is an affirmative one, Schwartz's book trilogy - a product of nightmarish legends from old anthologies and folklorists - did cause a stir, both good and bad.
The books - which were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991 - were so loved that they sparked a controversial movement to ban them from school libraries. Yet, it seemed that the harder the books were to find, the more their popularity swelled.
As del Toro puts it, "the banned books became catnip for adventurous youth".
So, despite its PG13 rating, just how 'kid-friendly' is it?
"The funny thing is the books have been banned in certain states or districts, by a certain type of parent, and nevertheless, for one or two reasons I can think of, they've stayed in print for more than 40 years," quips the father of two.
"And frankly when I was a teenager people wanted to get them," he insists. "The more you forbid something, the more you want to see it.
"My hope is that three generations come to the theatre and see this together."
He adds: "This was a chance to honour the book by telling a bigger story that would be very scary but also full of the playful spirit of youth.
"It was also a chance to look at the weight and responsibility of storytelling, so relevant in our world of social media today."
Therefore it's a movie that sits in the 'pro-individualist' camp, del Toro affirms.
"This one is pro-thinking for yourself; making your own conclusions and not believing what people tell you to believe. So pro-individual," he confirms.
"There are two types of horror movies: first are the ones that sort of scar your soul, but then there is the horror movie that is like a roller coaster ride. It's fun, entertaining and thrilling but ultimately has a humanistic spirit.
"And that's the type of movie Andre has made," he finishes. "One where you have fun getting scared."
- Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is in cinemas now