One of the key successes of the first, triumphant Goosebumps film was its choice as to where to position its storytelling perspective. Rather than directly adapting one of R L Stine’s many best-selling, and much-loved, horror-tinged books for a young audience, the film instead worked around the idea of putting Stine himself – played by Jack Black – at the heart of the drama. The resultant movie channelled the edgy, Joe Dante-esque family movies of the 80s and 90s, before giving way to a bit of CG. It also offered a gentle way into horror for a PG audience, too. I liked it a lot.
On the upside of the follow-up, the sequel doesn’t follow a particularly obvious path either. This is no outright recook, as Jack Black’s take on Stine is no longer the focus. Instead, we’re introduced to a new young gang of characters who find themselves in the same world, albeit facing familiar problems.
Thus, there’s Madison Iseman’s Sarah, Caleel Harris’ Sam and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Sonny, who ultimately uncover the sinister ventriloquist’s dummy Slappy. Slappy, if you’re not familiar, is a slightly more palatable Pennywise from It, but no less spooky for those who fear the idea of inanimate objects with clown faces coming to life. Thinking about it, that’s probably quite a broad demographic.
With lots of Halloween ornaments and decorations around the place – most of them down to Ken Jeong’s neighbour, Mr Chu – you can roughly map out fairly quickly what Slappy has in mind this time around, as he looks to bring things to life, cause mayhem, and do harm. It’s up to the ingenuity of the new bunch of misfits to try and stop him. It’s not, as you may have gleamed, the most complex plot.
Thus, the broader film, directed this time by Ari Sandel (who previously helmed the hugely underrated The Duff), doesn’t take long to establish itself as a Spielberg-esque 80s movie gang adventure. The ingredients are fairly overt. Three kids of whom you only see a fleeting glimpse of one father, who are mainly left to their own devices, and who travel around on bikes. One scene had me thinking at one point that the bikes were going to take off, to complete the homage.
Further touchpoints for the film can be gleamed too by some of the ensemble’s previous films. Put it this way: Iseman’s work in Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and Taylor’s in It? Neither were wasted, as Goosebumps 2 tips its hat to varying degrees to both.
What it manages to sustain in the midst of these assorted touchpoints is a limited kind of identity of its own, primarily through having a bunch of characters who are engaging, fun, and not to be trusted with electricity. The film too is significantly enhanced by the casting of Wendi McLendon-Covey (from Bridesmaids and The Goldbergs), who has plenty of fun in the mum role.
Yet what the film lacks is a central idea to the standard of the first. In fact narratively, it’s notably a lot weaker. Sure, there’s a wraparound of a college admission essay that somehow has to be completed, but the plot effectively boils down to stopping a threat that’s on the run. That the bunch of characters this time end up going through a fairly routine we-must-stop-bad-things-happening-with-stuff-we-talked-about-earlier-in-the-film mechanic. It’s not helped by the fact that as the movie hits its final act, it becomes time to pull the lever that then unloads a bucket of not-always-convincing CG, with noise and graphics overtaking character and logic. It gets far less spooky as a consequence.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is far from an upgrade, then, on a surprisingly strong original film. But in its corner, I’d maintain it’s still quite good fun, and for the first hour in particular, it works. The efforts of its cast, the lean running time and the energetic pacing stand it in good stead. Furthermore, it never gets bogged down a la The House With The Clock In Its Walls. It’s light enough to speed forward, even when there doesn’t appear to be much story fuel to help it. A third film is teased, too. I’d suggest it needs to strengthen its approach, though: it won’t get away with all of this twice…