This is the kind of movie that reminds viewers of how much fun being frightened can be.
GoosebumpsDirector: Rob Letterman
Studio: Columbia Pictures
US date: 2015-10-16 (General release)
UK date: 2015-10-16 (General release)
From the moment we are born, fear is with us. We cry for food, afraid our mother won't remember to feed us. We cry at loud noises, their shock setting off emotional reactions we aren't truly prepared for. From the neighbor dog to the darkened basement at the bottom of the stairs, we grow up surrounded by the scary. As we age, however, we start to rationalize and explain. Before long, the dark is just the absence of light, the unknown something to explore, not scream about.
Still, there are those things that continue to give us the creeps, those memories and monuments to never really coming of age. It can be bugs or beasts, sounds or suggestions. It can even be books; that is, the stories within.
For an entire generation, R. L. Stine was the frightmaster of choice. Call him a very YA Stephen King if you must, but his Goosebumps series reconfigured classic monsters into goofy ghost stories that have endured. Long the subject of cinematic speculation, Stine's work is now coming to the big screen, and the mighty meta Goosebumps movie is like a journey back to the days of '50s schlock, matinee monster double features, and finally confronting that so-called "thing" under your bed.
The film's self-referential structure sees former NYC teen Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) moving with his mom (Amy Ryan) to Madison, Delaware. They are both grieving the loss of her husband/his dad. Almost immediately, Zach runs into trouble in the form of wannabe BFF Champ (Ryan Lee). This needy nerd is desperate for a buddy and sees the new kid as his chance. In the meantime, Zach becomes intriged and then friendly with his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush). She's mysterious, and her father (Jack Black) is a jerk.
One night, Zach hears a loud argument, and fearing for Hannah's safety, he calls the police. It turns out that her daddy is actually R. L. Stine, and he has a horrible secret: the monsters in his many stories are real. Somehow, the author brought them to life and can only control them by locking them up in their respective manuscripts.
You can imagine what happens next. In a style ala Jumanji and Gremlins, Stine's monsters take over the town under the leadership of the evil ventriloquist dummy, Slappy (voiced by Black). There is only one way to defeat this throng of terror. Stine must write a new book, featuring everything he's ever created, and find a way to trap them all inside it.
Goosebumps gets just about everything right. It's funny and it's frightening. It's engrossing and its entertaining. It sets up characters we come to care about and the suspense that accompanies such concern. It's inventive and inspired, often evoking the classics in order to reinvent the present. Sure, it has a few flaws, and some obvious flourishes (Will that abandoned amusement park in the middle of the forest come into play during the Hecksapoppin climax? Whose taking bets?), but it's also a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, of Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt fame have found a dazzling way of bringing Stine's work -- all of it -- to life. The moment fans see his monsters en masse, everyone and thing from the Abominable Snowman to those crazed garden gnomes, the famous werewolf of Fever Swamp and the giant mantis from Shock Street, a sense of giddiness will overwhelm them. This is every Goosebumps' lovers wildest dream, and worst nightmare, all crammed together.
Individual sequences soar. A kitchen confrontation with those hilarious (and harmful) lawn ornaments reminds one of a certain Mogwai and his mutated chums, while a cemetery full of zombies further defines why we find the undead creepy. Sure, it would have been nice to see more Murder the Clown or other creatures reserved for cameos, but that's the brilliance of Goosebumps. Every Stine character is used, but some are kept in reserve, for there are sequel opportunities o'plenty.
This is a perfect role for someone like Black. In interviews, he always seems to be doing shtick and his take on Stine is 100 percent burlesque. His irritated author is so bigger than life that he seems to literally grow larger on screen. The actor's voice work for Slappy is secondary to Black's Stine. It's a wonderful turn, and it goes along with the understated work by Minnette and Rush, as well. Lee, on the other hand, finds a way to reinvent the loveable loser, even if his arc is obvious from the moment we meet him. (Will he hook up with the hottie he's warm for?) He's an Anthony Michael Hall for the new millennium.
This is pure pop culture nostalgia in the making, a future point on the pre-pubescent growth chart where a young mind will realize it went from terrified to intrigued. Fears. We all have them. For some, it happened with Don Knott's still sensational The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Others found it on Saturday Mornings courtesy of Scooby-Doo and the gang over at Mystery Inc. The '80s were overloaded with kid-friendly frights, with Stine taking over from there.
Sure, Goosebumps won't work for everyone, but those who do get it are unlikely to forget it. It's the kind of kid friendly film we don't see that often: one that speaks directly to the young mind, not down to it.