Tweetable Takeaway: Goosebumps is an immensely enjoyable exercise in nostalgia and a return to form for children’s horror. Tweet
As a child of that strange decade that was the 1990’s, I can tell you how integral R.L. Stine’s children’s horror series GOOSEBUMPS was to the proper development of future horror fans. The Goosebumps books served as the first shallow step into the bizarre, the strange, and the terrifying. The books series, which drew you in with their fantastically strange and eye-catching covers drawn by Tim Jacobus, provided a safe threshold of creepy tales with exciting twists and deplorable ghouls.
So naturally, the first feature adaptation of the material had a lot to live up to. The film needed to appeal to generations of territorial millennials who are seeking to get their nostalgic rocks off and bask in their childhood memories. But more importantly, for myself at least, Goosebumps needed to revive the now dormant genre of children’s horror. And boy does it do it all with resounding glee.
Goosebumps is another exercise in meta humor, following Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) who relocate to a new town following the death of the father, with Zach’s mother taking a new job as a school principal. At first Zach is realistically unhappy, until he befriends his new neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), who’s subject to the control of her creepy and overbearing father Mr. Shivers (Jack Black). After a charming night of youthful romance, Zack becomes determined to rescue his new crush from her father after he hears her screams following an argument.
After parents and police wave it off, Zach ventures over the fence with his plucky new pal Champ (Ryan Lee) to rescue Hannah, who turns out to be safe and sound. Champ and Zack unknowingly unlock one of her father’s manuscripts, which unleashes the eponymous monster from the Goosebumps tale “The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena.” Mr. Shivers is revealed to be the R.L. Stine, whose demons and creatures from his bestselling Goosebumps stories are real and locked within the pages of his manuscripts. Unfortunately for Stine and his new friends, his most sinister creation – a maniacal ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (voiced perfectly by Black) – also becomes released and steals the rest of Stine’s books in an attempt to exact his rage upon the sleepy town. Thus, adventure ensues!
There’s a possibility that Goosebumps’ meta approach could put off some fans who desired a straightforward adaptation of one of Stine’s reads, though the film is exactly the kind of spin needed to make it all work. The film, which evokes fine comparisons to Jumanji, primarily trades scares for laughs, creating a funny, silly, and generally good-natured adventure. Relentlessly fun, Goosebumps is a return to films like The Monster Squad, The Goonies, Casper, The Witches and Hocus Pocus, which put kids in a dangerous adventure that never gets too scary to spoil the fun.
Rob Letterman’s adaptation actually follows a Goosebumps story beat by beat, which intrinsically makes the comedic romp feel more like one of Stine’s stories. Parents ought not to fear a dull ride, as Goosebumps is just as fun for adults as it is for kids. The comedy never dips lowbrow and stays punchy and amusing, and while the scares never reach a nightmare-inducing level, they still illicit a aurora of creepiness.
In particular, a sequence late in the film featuring Slappy’s menacing terror in a funhouse is scary and reminds the viewer that the monsters aren’t looking to play. A werewolf, killer lawn gnomes, a clown, a giant praying mantis, zombies, aliens, and a vampire poodle are just a number of the baddies that get the most screen time, though fans of the books will have a fun time looking for easter eggs of their favorite monsters from the series. In an age where crossover team-ups are all the rage, Goosebumps is right at home with a jolly combination of monsters across all genres, from miniature robots to killer plants and ghosts to giant blobs.
Black shines as R.L. Stine, portraying the author as a sinister Orson Wells and puppet master to a cacophony of terror. The film even delves into some interesting territory as Stine’s monsters are exposed as personal demons and grotesque reflections of himself. Black has excellent chemistry with Lee, who carries most of the comedic weight. Lee’s on point as the eager, cowardly, and self-conscious sidekick who never misses an opportunity for a well-timed joke.
Minnette performs well as the story’s young hero, who’s battling some inner turmoil of his own, though he particularly clicks with Rush. Their relationship is what anchors the film and really connects with the audience, with moments of hidden smiles and romantic tension that take you back to your own youth.
Jillian Bell, Veep‘s Timothy Simons, and Ken Marino each get their moments to make a joke, though their characters are largely sidelined for a focus on the adventure. I could see some adult viewers missing Ryan, who primarily disappears after the first act, though any greater presence from her would slight the film and wouldn’t stay true to the source. Parents are merely pawns in Goosebumps books and never serve a a role in the action, as the whole point is to follow the kids as they take on the monster and become heroes. Stine is okay to tag along as he feels less like an adult and more like a kid than any of them.
With an emotional twist that really surprises, Goosebumps is the most uproarious, enthralling, and unabashedly fun experience I’ve had at the theater so far this year. The film is a delightful, anarchic tale that should equally create new horror fans out of youngsters and satisfy older fans of the books. I, for one, can only hope that the success of Goosebumps will not only usher in further sequels and more monster madness, but will also kickstart a new wave of children’s horror.
I give it 4 diabolical dummies out of 5.
Score: 4 out of 5
Bryan is a filmmaker who is now living in Hollywood. On any given Saturday you can find him dressing like an 80’s dad and singing “Just a friend” until someone asks him to stop.
Bryan Liberty | Contributor