The famous children’s book series is back from the grave for its big-screen debut. Warning: things may go ‘bump’ in the night.
A Goosebumps movie was unexpected, and yet the timing is perhaps just right for a reprise. Jack Black plays R.L. Stine, the author of the original books. His old manuscripts are carefully hidden away under lock and key, and Stine isn’t inclined to welcome guests into his abode.
This all changes when Zach (Dylan Minnette), the new kid next door, sees Stine having a heated argument with his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). Zach and Hannah have been becoming friends despite her mysterious and controlling father’s threats. Fearing a domestic dispute, Zach sneaks in to save Hannah after the cops prove to be useless. As he searches the house for her, Zach opens a Goosebumps manuscript and unwittingly releases the monster that was contained within its magical pages.
The story sets itself up for lots of self-referencing, whether it be the familiarity of the manuscript names and monsters to old fans of the books and TV show, or gags like Stine’s annoyance at being called a “Stephen King rip-off”. This postmodern approach to the source material could easily have been miscalculated, but it’s actually refreshing.
Night of the Living Dummy
The central villain of the piece is Slappy, the sinister talking puppet who terrorises and controls other people with his own twisted brand of psychology. Slappy was widely regarded as one of the creepiest characters from Goosebumps‘ lore and the scriptwriters are smart to emphasise him here. His animosity towards R.L. Stine is understandable given that he was locked away in a book for so long, and he has plans for taking over the whole town of Madison, Delaware with his monstrous cohorts. Jack Black’s dual performance as both Stine and Slappy also injects their confrontations with intrigue and unpredictability.
With Jack Black in the lead, the scare factor never ramps up too much.
Credit goes to the VFX team for making all the old monsters come to life visually. A tense scene in a supermarket sees Zach, Hannah, Stine and a cowardly kid named Champ (called “chump” by his school peers) hiding from a werewolf, which slides around the floors and collides with shopping trolleys and shelves as it sniffs out its prey. A giant praying mantis lays waste to the sleepy suburban town and even the living garden gnomes make an appearance, attacking from above and below with whatever they can get their little ceramic hands on. The 3D characters mesh well with their environment while keeping a fantastical visual identity, and their presence is meaningful and menacing at every turn.
This isn’t really a horror film, despite wearing the attire of one. Jack Black keeps the tone from getting too dark, and the unlikely protagonists always seem to find enough wriggle room to escape their evil-doing pursuers. The emphasis here is on entertainment value rather than scares. It’s a fair trade actually, as the film’s closing act contains epic monster sequences that wouldn’t have been possible had they chosen a more subdued approach.
The plot is also full of surprises, including a revelation about Hannah and her father that you won’t see coming. Some of the personal story arcs are a bit underdeveloped, though they at least attempt at being meaningful, and whenever some of the character development falls into familiar Hollywood territory, the central premise of the film keeps it unpredictable and exciting.
The shlock-horror appeal of the books has been respected and kept alive in its own way, although there are far more laughs here than at any other point in the franchise’s history. Overall, Goosebumps is an enjoyable family movie and a fitting introduction to the series for a new generation of kids.
Goosebumps is out now in UK cinemas.