October is the perfect time of year to indulge in a few Halloween frights, and for those movie lovers with children, Paranormal Activity, and Crimson Peak just won’t do. So Goosebumps will have to fill that gap. Twenty-somethings might feel the temptation to revisit the property since they grew up with it, but this is strictly kids’ fare.
With hundreds of Goosebumps novels to choose from, Sony could easily release at least one movie a year until 2020. Instead, director Rob Letterman forgoes the traditional route of adapting teen-lit and places the author into the story. Jack Black plays the real R.L. Stine–so to speak. If viewed more optimistically, Letterman’s approach to throw everything at to see what sticks could be seen as an homage to all of Stine’s work, but it feels rather like a calculated ploy to appeal to all the ticket buyers as possible. A movie featuring evil lawn gnomes doesn’t get high-volume tickets sales, but a memorable character like the ventriloquist dummy will.
The story will be familiar enough to any readers of Stine’s books. Zach, a teenager (Dylan Minnette) from a big city (New York), moves to a new town and doesn’t fit in with the tight-knit community. Prospects brighten when he meets neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), but her father (Jack Black) warns Zach to keep his distance. Like any teenager, Zach immediately does the opposite of what he’s told. In a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Zach oversees Hannah arguing with her father, and, naturally, assumes the worst of his next door neighbor. After a break-in to find out why Hannah disappeared, Zach discovers the truth. Hannah’s father is none other than the reclusive author, R.L. Stine. If that weren’t enough, Stine’s original manuscripts are actually prisons for the monsters they detail, and Zach has just freed the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena on the unsuspecting township of Madison, Delaware.
Thus ends any meaningful exchanges for the rest of the film as Zach, Hannah, Stine and Champ (Ryan Lee) spend every remaining minute running from one set-piece to another, combating CGI creations. The sheer level of FX on display is initially impressive, but it grows tiresome without any unique features to distinguish the snowman from the werewolf. The monsters just turn into a blur. Coincidentally, only Slappy (voiced by Jack Black) proves interesting and he is the result of practical effects.
Horror-comedy benefits a great deal from knowing actors chewing the scenery around them, yet, in this instance, Black tears off more than he can handle. Going ham can work if there are smaller, quieter moments to temper everything else. In that same vein, there’s no reason to care about the rest of the cast, because Dylan Minette and cast mates are constantly being chased around like an old-time Benny Hill sketch. Adapting a more specific title would have left more room for the characters to breathe and explore establishing a creepy atmosphere.
Obviously, Goosebumps is still aimed at children, so none of the cast are ever in danger of being killed. The monsters are more cheeky than chilling and bound to be forgotten pretty soon after leaving the theater. No one is asking for It Follows, but even a slight sense of malice would have prevented Goosebumps from feeling like a Universal theme park ride. A lot of children’s films can get by with a by-the-numbers approach, but horror is not one of them.