We take a look at this nostalgic comedy throwback to R.L. Stine’s classic series…
“Viewer beware, you’re in for a scare” the film disappointingly doesn’t begin, but that’s OK anyway, as we’re in for comedy adventure more so than actual scares here.
When teenager Zach has to move to Madison, Delaware from New York, New York, and only a year after the death of his father, understandably he’s not too happy. But things quickly improve for him when he makes friends with the biggest loser in the school, Champ (nicknamed “Chump”), and also when he makes a somewhat better friend in Hannah, the somewhat Manic Pixie-ish girl next door. But then things quickly get worse when he begins to suspect that homeschooled Hannah has an abusive father, and then they get even worse when, on investigating, he discovers that the father isn’t abusive, he just has a dark secret, which is that he’s R.L. Stine, and also that his Goosebumps manuscripts are magical artefacts in which the actual monsters of the stories are imprisoned, and before you know it Zach’s unleashed all the monsters, the dolt, and it’s up to him, Hannah, Champ, and R. L. Stine to put a stop to all this monster nonsense before the town is destroyed.
Even just from reading the plot summary, you should get the sense that this film is going to play out as a celebration of the Goosebumps books that must have been, for so many of us, our first introduction to the macabre. To any who inexplicably missed out on them, they were a junior readers’ horror series, made up mostly of standalone novels (though a few of the more popular titles received sequels) which generally followed the same, Outer Limits/Tales from the Crypt-y formula, all ending with a more or less implausible twist. The stories are paced excellently and judge the level of their readers very well. The television series is even better. Unlike with many similar series, R.L. Stine is not a collective nom de plume for several ghostwriters, but rather a single, very hard-working individual – there are 182 of the books in total, though only 62 in the original run which produced all the best-known stories (Night of the Living Dummy, Monster Blood, The Ghost Next Door, The Blob that Ate Everyone), most of which are represented here. It’s a greatest-hits, a celebration of the franchise. It’s a film which doesn’t leave much space for a sequel, though one is planned, tearing through almost every single “bit” the fans will be expecting.
And it’s quite a fun ride along the way, too, and it gets a lot right. Its principal characters are well-enough written that you actually do care about them and their inevitable character growth. Dylan Minnette and Odeya Rush as Zach and Hannah, respectively, are well-cast teens who for once look teenaged and not twenty-five, and who have genuine chemistry. Jack Black, whom Rob Letterman has directed before in the poorly-received Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels (which even gets a brief visual reference here!) does pretty good as R.L. Stine, though he keeps slipping from the creepy New England accent he’s attempting into typical Jack-Black-silly-voice-time. Plainly a recognisable star was always going to be cast in that rôle, but I can’t help thinking someone weirder might have worked better. Johnny Depp? Or the mighty Tom Waits? No great matter. The real R.L. Stine gets a nice cameo at the end. Black is better voicing the dummy Slappy, Stine’s dark alter ego, and really doesn’t ham that one up too much. The humour is nicely-judged, especially a rant about how Stine has sold more books than Stephen King, which you can look up, and the film should have a good cross-demographic appeal to children, parents taking their children, and young people nostalgic for the books and/or show they loved as kids.
About the only major complaint is that, as stated earlier, the film is a family adventure along the same lines as Night at the Museum or Jumanji, and really can’t be expected to scare even the wettest of children. That’s a shame, because the original Goosebumps was really good at being just a little scarier than its target audience were probably comfortable with, and it was exhilarating. Still, this is more a celebration of Goosebumps than a recreation of it, and it’s inevitable the tone would be more celebratory than the generally downbeat source material, and it succeeds in making you want to find all of those books in a box under your bed and re-read them. It might even make you want to read them to your own children.
Goosebumps opens today (5th February) in UK cinemas, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!