Written by: Darren Lemke (screenplay), Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (story), R.L. Stine (original novels)
Directed by: Rob Letterman
Starring: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, and Odeya Rush
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"All the monsters I've ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open..."
For a certain generation, the name R.L. Stine might as well carry the same sort of currency as Stephen King. While a legitimate comparison of the two authors might be akin to likening hatchet murders to a flesh wound, the young adult authorís influence canít be overstated: if you attended elementary school during the 90s, chances are you roamed down Fear Street or felt Goosebumps at some pointóI imagine either series was a literary gateway into the horror genre for many children.
Even for someone who was already a seasoned vet like me (his work was truly kidsí stuff compared to, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street), Stineís oeuvre was an indispensable addendum. I owned a hardcover collection of Goosebumps that screamed when you opened the front cover and everything. Sure, watching gruesome and grisly on-screen carnage was almost always an option, but the silly thrills (many of which I now recognize as the repackaged stuff of B-movies) of Goosebumps were, well, fun. Sometimes, itís easy to forget just how great fun can be, no matter how light and dismissive a descriptor that may be.
All of this is to say R.L. Stine was a big dealóand apparently still is since Goosebumps has been adapted into a feature film nearly 20 years after the end of its original run (it has apparently persisted via spin-offs since I checked out in the mid-90s). As far as adaptations go, itís not the most conventional, nor is it even attempting to merely reprint the books onto theater screens. It is, however, quite committed to recapturing the mood of the original books. Despite a ramshackle, haphazard approach that almost makes it feel too breezy, Goosebumps is funny, cute, occasionally gross, and fun as long as you approach it on its own terms.
Rather than strictly adapt any of the original tales, the film takes a meta approach: in an effort to start over after the death of her husband, Gale Cooper (Amy Ryan) pursues a new position as an assistant high school principal in a sleepy Delaware town, much to the dismay of her son Zach (Dylan Minnette). Convinced that heíll die from boredom, heís surprised to immediately discover that danger might lurk just next door, where his reclusive neighbor (Jack Black) keeps his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) under lock and key. When Zach begins to suspect that something sinister is afoot, he breaks into his neighborís house, only to discover that ďMr. ShiversĒ is actually R.L. Stine. Whatís more, his manuscripts are infused with a supernatural power that enables his tales to literally leap off of the page when theyíre unlocked. And, unfortunately, for bumbling Zach, he inadvertently unleashes all of the Goosebumps.
While watching Goosebumps (and, to be honest, while watching the trailer for Goosebumps), it was hard to resist the urge to criticize it for what it isnít rather than analyze it for what it is. Given the wealth of original source material (not to mention its tone), Goosebumps seems to be a perfect fit for the anthology format. Sure, itís perhaps the most obvious route to have Black as Stine (or even franchise mascot Slappy) in the Cryptkeeper role between straight adaptations of classic Goosebumps tales, but, sometimes, itís okay not to overthink these things. This seems like such a slam dunk concept that I canít fathom why someone wouldnít give it a shot.
But I get it. Speaking strictly from a box office standpoint, itís not as if anthologies have been a popular format in recent years (hell, decades), plus the 90s television series more or less covered this ground already. This is not my Goosebumps, nor should it beóone of the great things about the horror genre is its ability to pass tales down and repackage them for a new generation to discover and experience. Even though Goosebumps often finds itself in a hurry to breathlessly deliver all of these tales, itís at least in their spirit. If nothing else, it moves too quickly for one to get caught up in (perhaps unfairly) comparing it to the ideal movie in their head.
It helps that Goosebumps is often just good enough to suppress that urge, too. Straddling the line between vintage B-movies and a kiddie matinee feature, itís a lighthearted romp through familiar Goosebumps lore, buoyed by a game cast and a wittier-than-expected script. The teen leads are solid enough (and accompanied by Ryan Lee as the twitchy, over-animated geek), while Black anchors the film with a delightful, knowing turn as Stine himself, here imagined as something of a mad scientist by way of an insecure, paranoid author. Affecting an accent of nebulous, hammy origins, Black (a gifted comedian, physical or otherwise) relishes the opportunity to embrace a weird, energetic role thatís perfectly suited for his brand of juvenile-tinged, over-the-top comedy. He also stops just short of being a cartoon and brings a requisite amount of pathos, particularly once Goosebumps becomes R.L. Stineís New Nightmare.
Of course, Goosebumps doesnít exactly muse upon the same sort of issues Wes Craven explored twenty years ago, if it explores any issues at all. That it doesnít isnít an indictment but rather an acknowledgement that this is kidís stuff, and, to its credit, everyone involved realizes it, perhaps almost too much if the whiplash-inducing pace is any indication. Again, this is to be expected, even if the Jumanji-inspired, CGI-heavy, action-oriented approach isnít quite my tempo for this sort of thing. Even with that caveat, however, the breezy pace is sometimes a detriment. You can sense an attempt to control the chaos, as Slappy emerges as the ringleader here with other Goosebumps creatures in his legion (he commandeers The Haunted Car and counts Fifi the Vampire Poodle among his minions, for example); however, all too often, Goosebumps feels like a slipshod collection of empty callbacks and nostalgia pandering once monsters begin to slide in and out of the story.
One minute, itís a werewolf movie, the next itís a giant bug movie; before long, itís traipsed through a zombie-infested graveyard and had its characters outrun aliens with freeze-rays. Itís guided very much by the principle a ten-year-old may have dreamed up: ďwhat would happen if we mashed all the Goosebumps together and heated them up in a microwave like a batch of gummy worms?Ē As anyone who ever attempted the latter can attest, the result is kind of a delicious mess, and that holds true enough for Goosebumps, a film that hits its crucial sweet spot: itís harmless but thrilling enough for kids and smart and funny enough to work for those of us who aged out of this series twenty years ago.
I donít know that it took me back to elementary school (and we should expect more from films than this, anyway), but I found myself enjoying Goosebumps, often in spite of it: a great supporting cast boasting enormously funny talents like Jillian Bell and Ken Marino often feels a bit wasted (the latter criminally so), as are a pair of oddball cops who all but disappear after a memorable introduction. You also canít help but wonder if Goosebumps has already exhausted itself by including so many of its monsters on the first go-roundóby the end, I certainly felt exhausted as it sprinted from set-piece to the next, taking the bare minimum time to develop a ludicrous Manic Pixie Dream Girl subplot that ultimately flies in the face of the filmís scant thematic underpinning.
But speaking of ludicrous: far be it from me to be the guy who holds a Goosebumps movie to those sort of standards. Whatís more important is that so many of those set-pieces capture the atmosphere and tone of the novels, which rest somewhere between EC Comics and Halloweentown. The spooky, hole-in-the-wall surroundings (complete with an abandoned amusement park in the forest just beyond the cemetery, of course) feel like vintage Goosebumps, even if the film is rarely patient enough to soak in them. At one point, a character name-drops the original Blob, a film director Rob Letterman seems to have in mind in more ways than one, as not only does Stineís own homage (The Blob that Ate Everyone) appear, but so too does the monster-movie tone of the 1958 film and its ilk, all of which informed Goosebumps in the first place.
You could do worse than poach from that sort of inspiration, especially with a cast and script that takes it and runs with madcap abandon, no matter how draining it may be. Iíd be lying if I didnít admit to hoping that the eventual Fear Street adaptation is a little more up my alley, though.
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