R.L Stine’s contribution to the world of youth-friendly supernatural horror is unprecedented. His novels – 62 books from the original series were published between 1992 and 1997, and many more followed – were hugely successful, and reading them was like par the course of the journey through primary school. Stine’s extraordinary imagination led to all sorts of disturbing tales of ghosts, creatures, and uncanny phenomenon. Is there a child who didn’t have nightmares after reading The Barking Ghost (one of the scariest early-reading experiences of my life), or second-guessed going to a theme park after reading A Night in Horrorland, or attending a summer camp after reading Welcome to Camp Nightmare? While there was a long-running television series, which doesn’t hold up particularly well (trust me, I have tried), 2016 feels like the perfect time for Goosebumps to make a nostalgic return.
After moving from New York City to the small town of Madison, Delaware with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan), Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) finds a silver lining when he meets his pretty neighbour Hannah (Odeya Rush). The two bond – sneaking off and exploring an abandoned theme park in the woods and rebelling against the wishes of Hannah’s mysterious father (Jack Black) – as Zach acclimatises to his new school and makes a new friend, Champ (Ryan Lee). After hearing a disturbance and fearing for Hannah’s safety Zach breaks into her house, learning that her father is, in fact, R.L. Stine (Jack Black), the famous author of the best-selling “Goosebumps” series. Having written the original manuscripts on a magic typewriter, the tales are kept under lock and key to protect the world from the monsters within. When Zach accidentally unleashes the monsters, it is up to he, Hannah, Champ and Stine to save Madison.
Goosebumps succeeds primarily because it is very funny, incorporating consistently humorous dialogue with clever visual gags. Minnette’s chemistry with Rush and Lee is especially successful, the former pair’s meet-cute and awkward moments of attraction worked well, while Lee’s knack for getting everyone into trouble is endearing, rather than annoying. Black plays Stine pretty intensely, being an integral part of the film’s perfect set-up – a psychotic neighbour potentially harbouring a deadly secret. But even when we expect him to lighten up a little and be less of a jerk, he doesn’t, and this is surprisingly amusing. The film does weaken when the chaos hits, with director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels, watch out for an unexpected reference to this film) struggling with the mayhem of the CGI-loaded action. The CGI isn’t exceptional, but for it to work as an extension of Stine’s voice, and a throwback, it also didn’t need to be.
The film does struggle too with its understanding of its audience. While it is obviously more marketable as a family-friendly blockbuster, it doesn’t possess many ‘terrifying’ moments. These did frequent the books, many of which were very scary for a young reader. I’m not sure whether children today are reading Goosebumps, but a significant part of this film is a tad too silly (and tame) for now 30+ year-olds who read them on release, and too reflective on the original series for newcomers to fully appreciate.
There are a tonne of meta references to supernatural and horror texts here, and not just to Stine’s books, so this will prove rewarding for accompanying adults with more exposure to genre films. The film’s breathless pace should easily keep younger viewers glued, providing minor jump scares and moments of tension. Due to the limitations offered by the palatable plot, and no doubt the visual effects budget, it does have to rely on a handful of Stine’s creations above all. This is understandable, considering the immense task of transforming the entire anthology into a single film. Some of your most memorable monsters might not make the cut, but if you look carefully amongst the mass of unleashed monsters there’s an array of cameos.
Comparisons to Jumanji are obvious here, but this has an added meta-edge by actually involving Stine in the lunacy, while simultaneously adopting the tone of an early Goosebumps novel and paying homage to Stine’s influences from a cinematic angle. Stine re-worked supernatural-horror tropes (haunted houses, werewolves, mummies, sharks) for teen readers, often capturing protagonists dealing with broken families, angst and bullying, finding newfound strength, courage and responsibility in the face of the threat. These characters were often inspiring, and Zach feels like a perfect replication of these characters for the screen.
Goosebumps is a lot of fun, offering up goofy ’50s monster-movie throwbacks and serious nostalgia for fans. It is much better than it had any right to be, above all a fine comedy due to the competence of the casting. Having read most of Stine’s original series before the year 2000, I frequently felt like I was ten again watching this, but for parents who want their ease their kids into horror, this is a perfect place to start.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Rob Letterman
Writer(s): Darren Lemke
Starring: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee
Runtime: 103 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: January 7, 2016