Ask a horror fan what draws them to the genre, and you'll get any number of possible answers. Ask that question of, say, a twelve-year-old horror fan, and I suspect that the range of answers will be at least somewhat narrowed down: and high on that list would be gross corpses with lots of gore and shit. All credit in the world to the new film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark for knowing, first and foremost, that it has to scratch that itch. The movie's one unquestionable, unequivocal strength is its creature design: its shuffling ghosts, concocted from the nightmares of the teenage cast, are indeed gross, and they are accompanied by a pretty substantial amount of gore for a PG-13 movie keeping an eye on the younger side of that rating's target audience. They have an admirable quantity of saggy, moist fleshiness, painted in necrotic shades of grey, and they are quite off-putting in a terribly fun way. I have not read the three short story collections by Alvin Schwartz, nor seen the beloved illustrations for those books drawn by Stephen Gammell, so I can't speak to the fidelity of the film's designs, but I can happily say that they do the one most important thing, and fill that urgent adolescent need for a good creepy gross-out scare.

Sadly, beyond the monsters, Scary Stories doesn't have a whole to offer. Even its dense autumnal atmosphere, its next best strength, has a slightly chewed-and-digested quality, the result of too much digital color correction. And ill-advised color correction on top of it: the chilly grey clouds of an October afternoon have been given a distinctly metallic, one might say teal overtone, while the interior lights representing the warmth of walking inside from a cold fall night have been pushed to look so warm that they tip over the edge from a cozy yellow to a sweaty, sultry orange. It robs the film of its clammy qualities and replaces it with the feeling of being trapped inside a very special Halloween edition of a Transformers movie. Like, an effectively gloomy, spooky version of that, but it's still pretty shiny for a movie that so loudly and proudly embraces the ethos of creepy-crawly campfire stories that you can almost smell the damp leaves and smoke.

It would have to have that ethos, of course: Schwartz's books were curated volumes of urban legends, tidied and tightened for an audience of middle-school readers, and the whole entire point of them is to provide a quick little punch of the heebie-jeebies when you hear them delivered in shadowy spaces. The movie is obliged to force these little nuggets of terror into an overall narrative framework, of course, but it retains as its central principle the power of a good scary story. In Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, in the last decade of the 19th Century, a woman named Sarah Bellows was convicted in the court of popular opinion of being a child murder. In the decades since, she's gained a reputation in death as telling stories that would kill the listener, and the huge, abandoned Bellows mansion - a hell of a good haunted house, courtesy of production designer David Brisbin - has become a focal point for brave local kids to taunt Sarah's ghost. On Halloween night in 1968, four such teens - aspiring horror writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), drifter Ramón (Michael Garza), helpless romantic Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and annoying jackass Chuck (Austin Zajur) - end up in that very mansion while trying to escape 18-year-old bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), and upon finding a hidden room, Stella manages to abscond with Sarah's old book of stories. Before the night is out, the book has started acting up, with an invisible hand writing new stories in blood-like ink, with the punchline resulting in the death of the story's protagonist. Tommy goes first, stalked by a Leatherface-looking scarecrow, and by the end of the day on November 1, the four other teens, as well as Chuck's sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), find themselves helpless to stop Sarah's rage from manifesting in the form of zombies, spiders, and other horrid productions from the childhood id.

It's better, at least, than the last time a movie was inspired by a series of horror books for children, 2015's useless Goosebumps, but it would still be paying Scary Stories an undue compliment to say that this all worked. The film has a hard time making any of the characters interesting, and other than Stella and sort of, loosely, Ramón, it's not clear that it's trying to. These are all mostly just props for the setpieces directly adapting Schwartz's stories, with the daytime sequences inbetween unimaginative filler that find the several writers involved mostly just idly moving pieces around. To be clear, the setpieces work: director Andre Øvredal has an obvious love for the genre (this is his third horror feature, in a third completely different style, following the first-person monster movie Trollhunter and the demonic mystery chamber drama The Autopsy of Jane Doe), and he's indulging it shamelessly, crafting the big chase scenes that tend to be what every one of these turn into with a great deal of visual panache and exquisite timing. The sequence involving first-person POV shots of cherry red hallways is the best part of the film, but the thick windy blackness of the scarecrow scene, and the miraculous stillness that sets up the last punchline of the toeless zombie scene, are both moments that would do any storyteller proud. The film isn't subtle; it wants to be spooky and creepy and to jump out and yell "boo!" as loud as it can after getting us good and unsettled. It does this quite well.

But that's not very much of a movie that goes on far too long, and the material with the characters is simply not that interesting. Also, I slightly detest the 1968 setting. Points for nailing the look of the era, and the music of the era, and maybe points off for having people accidentally talk about Night of the Living Dead like they already know it's going to become one of the defining milestones of horror cinema. But add some points back in for having NotLD screening at a drive-in, which actually needs to be a drive-in for the plot purposes of one scene.

And then take away all the points, burn them, and smack the film's hands with a ruler for recognising that the very biggest thing going on in 1968 in the United States - in the world! - was the descent into madness of most of the world's democracies over the Vietnam War, and the protests that rattled America and several European countries, as well as the high-profile assassinations, and all the rest. I mean, it's good that the film recognises all of this. It just does absolutely terrible things with them. The setting - October 31 and the first week of November - means that the backdrop to the film is the presidential election contest between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, and Scary Stories goes all-on on this backdrop, including news stories about the election and news stories about the war as visual and audio backdrop in nearly every scene that isn't a horror setpiece, and highlighting the psychological impact of the war on 18-year-old boys of both pro-war (Tommy) and anti-war (Ramón) persuasions. Which is a whole lot, but it's manageable, on paper. In practice, though, Scary Stories has absolutely no goddamn clue what it's doing. This is clearest in the way the film incorporates Nixon's actual victory, a little bit of counterpoint so giddily ill-advised that I almost adore it for being so totally committed to whatever it thinks its themes are; but it's generally the case that the film is playing with a raging bonfire, and imagines itself to be pitching lit matches into a tin can. It is straining so hard to connect the violence and political unrest of '68 with the violence and political unrest of our own days, while also trying to make sure that it can just be a fun horror lark; it tries to make the paranoia and persecution of witches (in the 1890s?) tie in with the paranoia and persecution of the '60s. And it is fucking terrible at doing any of this. You can't create a grand sociopolitical statement about America's propensity towards violence in the past, present, and future, while also whipping up a lightweight, atmospheric "eww, gross!" genre picture for adventuresome tweens, and I genuinely cannot imagine how the filmmakers thought they were ever going to hold all of this one body. And it's such a graceless, clumsy assemblage that it leaves me feeling much, much more annoyed by the film than I ever would have done if it were just a well-executed moody ghost story with too much orange and teal.