It’s been a long time since I last cracked open a Goosebumps book. Like many a 90s kid, I spent way too much time reading R.L. Stine’s flagship series, but today they’re more fondly remembered as a gateway into the horror genre than for the stories themselves. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one, because the series’ big-screen adaptation is more a meta-movie about the Goosebumps phenomenon than about any one particular story. It’s a fun ride that works more often than it doesn’t, but make no mistake, this film is pretty much strictly for kids.
The film finds Zach (Dylan Minnette), a perfectly average teen with zero personality, moving to Madison, Delaware with his mom (Amy Ryan). Right away, Zach meets cute with next door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), but her father (Jack Black) is extremely standoffish towards him. While investigating what he thinks is a domestic disturbance, Zach and de facto sidekick Champ (Ryan Lee) discover that Hannah’s father is none other than Goosebumps author R.L. Stine, and that his original manuscripts have magical power. Like an idiot, Champ opens up “The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena,” releasing the monster itself into the house. This sets off a chain reaction in which evil ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Jack Black) escapes from his book, releases all the other monsters from their books, and proceeds to wreak havoc all over town.
R.L. Stine has written dozens of Goosebumps books over the years — featuring everything from zombies to mummies to ghosts to killer bees — so it’s somewhat disappointing that the only monsters we really get to spend any time with are the four or five featured on the poster. The Abominable Snowman, a werewolf, evil garden gnomes and a giant praying mantis all get their own big setpieces, but aside from an evil clown extra who keeps shoving his way to the front of every shot, that’s pretty much all we get. Logistically, that makes sense; feature too many monsters and you’ll overload a movie already running at a breakneck pace. Still, the film’s premise is that all of Stine’s creations break loose and run amok. All the monsters show up in the second act, and aside from the handful mentioned above, they all apparently stand around doing nothing offscreen.
Perhaps the most damning criticism you could level at Goosebumps is that the film’s story is just as thin as your typical Goosebumps book. It keeps with the spirit of the books just fine, though. And just like the books, it’s all surface level stuff. No one will ever accuse Goosebumps of being a thematically dense film, but that’s okay. Kids deserve to have their frights and scares, too. To that end, there are plenty of mild jump scares and icky monsters to be found. As mentioned above, though, few monsters stick around for long. Anyone old enough to watch an actual horror movie might not be scared by anything in Goosebumps, but the whole thing moves so quickly that there’s never a dull moment.
And just because this is a movie for kids doesn’t mean that director Rob Letterman won’t still toss in references to some of the classics for good measure. Certain monsters taunt our heroes like Freddy Krueger, and Slappy’s pun-heavy dialogue (which, if you ask me, the film could’ve used more of) makes him an even goofier version of The Crypt-Keeper. There are also a few nods to Stephen King, including one scene where Stine throws a tantrum because nobody cares that he’s sold more books than King. The icing on the film’s referential cake is an ending that is visually very reminiscent of Evil Dead 2.
These are touches I appreciate, if only because they show a healthy respect for horror at large. Kids may not know about Freddy or Ash or Steven King now, but in ten years they might. They might then look back on films like this as the primer that sparked their interest in horror. If anything, that’s going to be this film’s legacy. It’s a fun diversion for a late-October evening, but older kids might be ready for something with a few more teeth.
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