According to family lore, my first horror experience – and I suppose first movie experience in a theater – came in the very early nineties. I was taken to see Child’s Play (whether it was part two or three remains a mystery, their releases within a year of each other, 1990 and 1991, respectively, so it’s difficult to pinpoint which one I actually “watched”). Of course, I was too young to remember much of this experience, but those seeds planted by the rubber killer doll that evening germinated into an insatiable taste for horror that would only grow stronger with age.
These seeds would lay dormant until elementary school when my absolute earliest experience with the macabre I can fully remember took root, though not in film but with the written word. It came in the form of an observation followed up by a question: “What are you reading?” I remember this chubby kid named Roger with a funny bowl shaped haircut. He was quiet, but when I asked the question he responded with a passionate description of the Goosebumps book series. My astonished face caught his attention because when he was done he handed one of many books he had in his backpack (I wish I could remember the name of the first book I read was). From then the rest was history.
If you were a nineties kid, like myself, you were probably both allured and haunted by those covers by Tim Jacobus, between 1992 and 1997 the Goosebumps series reigned. Over 350 million copies sold worldwide,even spawning a successful television show that was in its own way the perfect embodiment of not just R.L. Stine’s written word, but a celebration of horror, and an accessible program for its young audience that wasn’t too scary or excessive but horror enough to give you chills at night and wonder about the world around us.
Given all this, it should come to no surprise that I’d exhibit more than a little excitement over finally seeing the long-awaited film version of my beloved series, which arrives just in time for Halloween. A sense of relief overcame me as my worst fears about the film have been assuaged: the filmmakers didn’t ruin Goosebumps – quite the opposite. The trailer for the film, however, is still terrible but don’t let that deter you from watching this explosively fun family comedy/horror.
The film never feels trapped in the past nor slavishly tethered to its source material, reinvigorated by director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels, Monsters vs. Aliens) and writer Darren Lemke (Turbo, Shrek Forever After), exuding an incredible energy that’s a total blast for everyone in the family. Even those who didn’t grow up with Chucky and the original books.
Keeping in the tradition of Mr. Stine’s original works, the film has all the familiar elements found in your typical Goosebumps adventure. Zach (Dylan Minnette), the new kid in town, is still adjusting to his recent move as he laments the passing of his father, along with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan), who happens to also be the new vice-principal at his new school. There’s also his kooky aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) – who’s incredibly funny.
As it turns out Zach’s neighbor is Hannah (Odeya Rush), the beautiful, but reclusive, girl next door, imprisoned and shielded from the outside world by her father who – as Zach will soon find out – just so happens to be famed writer R.L. Stine (Jack Black). Zach also meets school dork Champ (Ryan Lee), which is short for Champion, and the gang is nearly complete.
Believing Hannah to be in danger Zach and Champ sneak in to Stine’s home to rescue her, unwittingly unleashing the Abominable Snowman (yes, from that book). By the time they realize their mistake it’s entirely too late as, unbeknownst to them, they’ve also released Slappy the Dummy (voiced also by Black), the villainous and most recognizable character from the series. Turns out that Slappy wants to release all the characters from Stine’s other manuscripts, and now Stine and Hannah must team up with Zach and Champ to bring his creations back into the manuscripts where they belong.
What I absolutely love about the first act is the film’s hesitancy in jumping right into the obvious Goosebumps mythos, instead focusing on establishing and planting its characters and setting. Most adaptations, remakes, and reboots focus so much on pleasing the fan base by constantly bombarding us from the beginning with sweeping and obvious musical cues that are taken from the original score or eye-winking visual references that are are meant to please – but ultimately distract; I’m looking at you Jurassic World.
Here, the recognizable characteristics of that world trickle in slowly before ultimately exploding on the screen – and it’s worth the wait. The film definitely earns the right to flaunt its source material and allows for a plausible suspension of disbelief.
Jack Black does his usual thing with his caricature of Stine, imbuing him with a quasi-Wellsian cadence, and he’s funny as always. But the film’s real success lay in the talents of its young actors, who play well off each other, especially Ryan Lee. His performance as the cowardly “best friend” to the hero Zach is incredibly funny. Furthermore, a sharp script that is surprisingly creative, and something I am sure R.L. Stine would be proud of, keeps true to the spirit of Stine’s books, but adding an undeniable modernity.
If I had any real complaint it would be that its visual effects are pretty subpar and cheesy, but even this acceptable; the film needed that feeling of schlock that made the TV series great, with its low-budget look.
Goosebumps manages to both capture and add to the series oeuvre. Differing from the TV series’ more gloomy and twisted sense of humor, the film is a light farce that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. It may seem that the idea of releasing all the monsters from Stine’s main series is overload, but it’s handled surprisingly well. The script’s inventiveness and, ironically, moderation make this a successful family movie, which might have been lost had they opted to adapt any single story.
The main monster is Slappy, and others like the garden gnomes, the Werewolf of Fever Swamp and the Giant Mantis from Shocker on Shock Street, and many others that you will most definitely spot in the background, all make appearances. Goosebumps is a fun and enjoyable horror ride – a must for longtime fans of the monumental book series and newbies alike.