Since 1992, author R.L. Stine has published 182 children’s horror novels under the Goosebumps banner, at one point even turning them out on a monthly basis. Stine has sold 400 million books worldwide and Goosebumps has spawned spin-offs, merchandise and an anthology TV series with an appropriately spine-tingling title sequence. However, Stine’s spooky doings have never quite made the leap to the big screen until now.
If you’re a fan, you might have imagined that a movie version of Goosebumps might take on the anthology style of something like Twilight Zone: The Movie, given how the source novels are generally much too short to spawn full-length features on their own. Just in time for half-term, Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps instead takes a portmanteau approach, cherry-picking from several of Stine’s books and doing an entertaining mash-up in which an author’s creations come to life and terrorise small-town America.
At the start, Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) unhappily moves from New York to Madison, Delaware, after his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) takes the vice-principal job at the local high school. The stroppy teen finds himself drawn to a silver lining in the form of his neighbour Hannah, (Odeya Rush) but their fledgling friendship is obstructed at every turn by her stern and reclusive father (Jack Black.)
When Zach and his socially awkward friend Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak next door to investigate further, they are surprised to discover that Hannah’s dad is the author of Goosebumps, and he keeps a whole bunch of manuscripts, each padlocked for safekeeping, in their home. But their meddling reveals that Stine’s stories have a tendency to leap off the page and soon Madison is besieged by his monsters, led by Slappy, the infamous doll from Night Of The Living Dummy, and bent on destruction.
What follows is a standard A-to-B family adventure chase movie, but draws as much from Joe Dante’s playbook as Stine’s, staging anarchic confrontations in everyday settings like the kitchen, the supermarket and, inevitably, the high school. There are token visits to the cemetery and the abandoned fairground too, just for good measure.
It’s obviously not up to the scary standard of Dante’s Gremlins or even his lesser-seen 2009 film The Hole, but then we’ve been spoiled by great family-oriented horror films in the last few years, largely in the form of animated fare like Frankenweenie and ParaNorman. Nobody involved in Goosebumps seems to have set the bar as high as those films in using genre to work through childhood issues – it’s a romp, through and through, and on that level, it’s surprisingly entertaining and a particular treat for the under-served PG audience.
At one point in the movie, Stine the character scoffs at the idea of writing a story featuring every monster he ever created, but that’s more or less what screenwriter Darren Lemke has given us, (from a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) in movie form. Unlike some reboots of this kind, the result works for new viewers as well as long-time fans looking for a nostalgia kick.
The Abominable Snowman Of Pasadena, Revenge Of The Lawn Gnomes and A Shocker On Shock Street are amongst the stories referenced next to Night Of The Living Dummy, and although not every story gets a hat-tip, the fan-pleasing favourites all seem to be present and correct at some point or another. Fans can also look out for a 3D-animated reappraisal of artist Tim Jacobus’ cover illustrations in the end credits and a fun gag involving high school drama teacher Mr. Black.
On the subject of another Mr. Black, having previously worked with Letterman on the likes of Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels, Jack Black gets to stretch himself more here than in any of his previous family movies.
As Stine alone, he plays against type as an uptight and neurotic figure who really isn’t very open to the world, but he does the same again as Slappy, with a villainous vocal performance that’s full of insidious puns and open malice. There are some likeable turns from the younger stars, Minette, Rush and Lee, but the film largely revolves around Stine and the teens in their battles with monsters, sometimes to the detriment of the town itself.
Amy Ryan gets precious little to do and Halston Sage (recently of Paper Towns and Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse) only shows up once at the beginning so that we know who she is when she gets rescued by one of the main guys during the climactic skirmish. With the exception of 22 Jump Street‘s Jillian Bell (who typically steals every scene in which she appears), the town of Madison doesn’t feel especially lived-in while it’s getting trampled.
Still, Letterman keeps things moving apace and marshals a surprising array of behind-the-scenes talent too – Sony Pictures Animation provides the CGI creatures, cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe lends oodles of visual flair to the more typical carnage, and composer Danny Elfman dutifully Danny Elfmans the heck out of the score.
Overall, it’s very nicely balanced as a horror comedy for a family audience. It has as many startling bits to catch out parents as it has for their kids and it doesn’t aim too many of its jokes over children’s heads either, save for an initially off-putting ‘Steve King’ reference that is more than justified by the chucklesome punchline later on.
Against my expectations, I found it to be good fun. It could have done more with the ingenious premise, but it playfully distinguishes itself from similar fare and more than qualifies as an enjoyable half-term diversion for kids of a certain age. Slappy and friends might sometimes be a bit much for very young viewers, but it’s only about as frightening as a good old-fashioned ghost train ride. Better than that, by never condescending to its young audience, it makes a persuasive case for the power of the written word that might win over a few new avid readers.
Alphabetically, Goosebumps fits on the shelf between classic fare like Ghostbusters and Gremlins, but in terms of execution, it spreads itself more broadly between Cabin In The Woods and Night At The Museum. Overall, the meta-reboot is just as frantic, funny and formulaic as the source material it so lovingly remixes. That might be the very best compliment we can give it, except to say that it’s the best movie featuring a giant praying mantis in recent memory.
Goosebumps is out in UK cinemas from February 5th.
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