With their creepy covers and dripping title font, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps are a staple of any children’s reading section. Every school book fair boasted shelves and shelves of the spooky tales, from Welcome to Camp Nightmare to Go Eat Worms! and How I Got My Shrunken Head. No matter a child’s interests, chances are there was Goosebumps book that’d catch their eye.
Goosebumps are stories with a perfect blend of silly and spooky that kids flock to, where the scenes quickly transition from funny to frightening. That’s the tone this Goosebumps movie shoots for as well and the film does manage its share of frights and laughs. However, those looking for a truly unique tale with all the twists and turns we expect of an author like R.L. Stine may leave the theater a little disappointed.
Goosebumps isn’t an adaptation of any specific book, but rather a new story set in a world where R.L. Stine (Jack Black) has published his Goosebumps novels just as he has in our reality. Except here the monsters are real, only held captive within the original Goosebumps manuscripts under lock and key.
Zach (Dylan Minnette) is the young man at the center of this adventure, moving to a small, isolated town in Delaware from New York City with his recently widowed mother. He takes an interest in the enigmatic girl next door, Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), and after overhearing an argument between father and daughter, Zach and the only friend he’s made at his new school, Champ (Ryan Lee) break into their home to rescue Hannah.
While sneaking throughout the house they come upon the locked Goosebumps manuscripts, leading them to unwittingly unleash a veritable plague of monsters and ghouls upon their unsuspecting town – with the terrifying Slappy the Dummy (of Night of the Living Dummy fame) as their ringleader.
Once the monsters are out and running amok, Goosebumps is a fun ride, but it does seem to take longer to reach that point than its hour, 40 minutes runtime should allow. Besides Slappy, the monsters that feature most prominently are the Abominable Snowman, the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the Invisible Boy, a giant mantis and a slew of living lawn gnomes, and for the most part they’re used effectively. By far the gnomes get the best scene and prove the most unique, while the Snowman, Werewolf and giant mantis are all basically the same – large, lumbering terrors chasing our heroes around. It’s a bit of a shame, too, because Goosebumps has its fair share of unusual monsters that could have played different roles, like The Haunted Mask or alien Jack O’Lanterns.
The monsters are achieved mostly with CGI and the more animated, less realistic look of them matches those iconic cover illustrations well. For Slappy, however, a real ventriloquist dummy is used (performed by Avery Jones), but it doesn’t jar with the digital monsters. Instead, having Slappy appear tanglible only makes him more terrifying, as if he’s a little more real (and therefor more dangerous) than the others. There’s also an element of Slappy being the creation of Stine’s that is most like himself, causing an interesting dynamic between the creature and its maker. However, the point is mostly underused and never really becomes a focus of the story, keeping instead with scenes of our heroes being chased around town.
Black does a fine job as a characterized version of Stine, but if you aren’t already a fan of Black you likely won’t enjoy his performance. He also performs the dialogue for Slappy, and that proves a more interesting performance than his Stine. But then, a homicidal dummy is just a better role than an exasperated author. The teens are all adequate at filling their roles – Minnette the reluctant hero, Rush the mysterious girl he falls for, and Lee as the funny wingman. There’s nothing revolutionary about their parts, but they don’t really hurt the film either. In fact, what’s worse are the slew of other actors that are criminally underused: Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Timothy Simmons, and Amanda Lund.
As a family film that will both scare and delight, Goosebumps will surely do well at the box office this weekend (especially since they smartly decided to bump it from an August to an October release). Yet, the film doesn’t live up to the series of novels which inspired it. This could easily be nostalgia talking, but nothing about Goosebumps the movie is especially remarkable or noteworthy.
Had they chosen to instead adapt perhaps three or four of the Goosebumps books, finding some way to string the tales together into one story, then that film could have been a nice to start to a spooky franchise. Instead what we have is a literal parade of just about every Goosebumps monster they could cram into one movie, neglecting to capture what made the books so popular in the first place.