If there’s one thing wrong about this movie adaptation of the book franchise that sent thousands of kids into sleepless nights is that it isn’t actually scary. No, Rob Letterman’s adaptation serves up a friendlier dish that is sure to have the young ones reeling with excitement more than give them a fit of the eponymous ‘goosebumps’. Constructed on a stumbling narrative and an emotional core that better suits a straight-to-television movie, Goosebumps does have its moments of tongue-in-cheek jokes and meta-references to both its source material and others in the genre. While spread out on a canvas that seems at times too glossy for the material it derives from, it will undoubtedly serve its target audience – school-kids and families too cautious about what is shown to their kids – and will not keep you bored the first time around.
Zach Cooper is a teen from New York who has at the start of the movie, moved with and on the insistence of his mom to Madison, Delaware: the very kind of small town where so many of Stine’s and his supposed rival (according to the movie) King’s tales unfold. The first act of the movie deals with the usual suspects that every high school kid in the movies has to bear; from his ‘new kid’ status to discovering a new love interest to discover secret places in the woods with. This love interest is Hannah, the girl next door who is constantly under the watchful crazy eye – to the point of being homeschooled and locked in – of her father, Mr Shivers. Things take a turn for the jaw dropping when Zach’s concern and hormone-driven intrusion into Hannah’s life as he and the quintessential wimpy friend stumble onto Mr Shivers’ secret. This secret, as it turns out, is two-fold: Mr Shivers is actually R L Stine (Really, ‘Shivers’ isn’t his real name?) and he has a shelf full of the locked original manuscripts for the ‘Goosebumps’ books which can release the monsters within its pages on being opened. This clever premise then snowballs into a most catastrophic night for the citizens of Madison (where no one is seen getting killed, but many are frozen and never mentioned again) as the kids bandy up with Stine to write the monsters back onto paper.
For the most part, Goosebumps is as harmless as horror movies come, that is if it can even be called that. Letterman and especially the screenwriters attempt meta-humour on the horror genre along the likes of Shaun of the Dead and campy fun along the lines of Gremlins, this one falling into the quality category of the latter more than the other. The film asks its viewers to dispense logic – the most basic logic that our world operates on even in times of attacks from mutant plants and blobs – and take on the minds of tweens as it showcases one monster of childhood nostalgia after the other. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and surely places Goosebumps higher up on the table than recent trash such as the Paranormal Activity sequels; but when the books and especially the television show was built on creeping the bejeesus out of its audiences, the film seems to lack something there. This is perhaps more an argument against any big-screen adaptation of Stine’s cult classic lineup than the drawbacks of this particular one, as I don’t see a more faithful adaptation being much better. Switching out the more self-contained and small-scale nature of horror brought to the pages by the real R L Stine for an all-out monster riot, the plot of the film seems like it was written at the same rushed pace that Black’s Stine employs out of necessity in the last act.
The biggest surprise for me with Goosebumps was the self-referential humour that is unusual as far as kids’ monster movies go: some of them ranking right up there with the jokes in classics such as Scream and Shaun of the Dead. At one point, Black’s Stine searches for a place where he can sit down with his typewriter and in a hilarious turn, finds a stage set for The Shining which – for those unfortunate to have experienced neither Stephen King’s novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film – is about the slow mental descent of a writer confined to his typewriter. At another, Zach’s aunt attempts to alert the police stations nearby by the words ‘Calling all cops, calling all cops!’ in direct reference to one of Stine’s lesser known novels. Indeed, Letterman does not leave his audience bereft of juicy sequences which remind them of staples of the horror genre, from the rundown amusement park to the werewolf in shorts and sneakers, albeit delivering watering down each one to fit the more amusing than horrifying bill. The one flaw with most of the references made is the subtlety that is lost on most viewers who haven’t read the Goosebumps novels. While I myself loved them as a kid and they served as my introduction to the horror genre, it is easy to imagine people who haven’t read his books sitting blank-faced as a majority of the jokes fall flat on them. And the references do not stop there, extending even to the play on the pseudonym Black’s Stine (I shall constantly refer to the character this way as I see him as fiction separate from the real R L Stine) uses to a Stan Lee-like cameo for the real Stine toward the end, named Mr. Black (har-de-har).
Although to an extent the film introduced itself through new characters and uses a plot never before seen in Stine’s books (a laudable effort, I must say) I cannot but think that majority of the enjoyment comes from pure nostalgia of seeing the monsters that starred in your childhood nightmares come to life on the big screen. This immediately detracts from the feature, as I realize just how many of the monsters walk on and off screen in the manner of easter eggs for the ardent fans, with only a limited number of universal characters who do not require explanation. In a way, it can be compared to the way certain comic-book television shows introduce and kill off/detain minor villains as ‘villains of the week’ to resist the wrath of fanboys. While the werewolf and the Slappy the ventriloquist’s dummy might not need much exposition owing to their iconic presence in yesteryear horror films (Teen Wolf, Child’s Play), I cannot imagine some others such as Fifi the vampire dog and the lawn gnomes inciting the same feelings in newcomers to the franchise.
As we come to the characters in the film, it is without doubt that the clear stars are Jack Black as the creepy author of the series and his nemesis/doppelganger Slappy. Black is noticeably less the high-energy head-banger we are accustomed to him playing, and in a bout of what I may call method acting, turns animated in the best way possible as the jokes require him to be. The tone he adopts, while perhaps as far as possible from the more sombre-seeming Stine, is one that suits the film it inhabits and works to perfect effect. Slappy on the other hand is pure charisma: with a creepy and commanding voice, he is perhaps the most unsettling part of the film (apart from the romantic element, but we’ll come to that in a bit) and is rightfully the most recognizable of Stine’s creations. And for a movie whose whole premise is ‘monsters unleashed on small town’, the Slappy-Stine relationship shows surprising depth, to the point where Slappy makes a statement that is akin to one uttered by the Joker many a time to Batman. Unfortunately, this intriguing bond is poorly complemented by a most cringeworthy love-story between Zach and Hannah which springs from nowhere and feels more forced than the distracting soundtrack. The performances of its two young leads are also too serious for the campy plot at times, and too mushy for any plot that it starts to remind us more of the television adaptation. The more convincing and genuinely comedic character is that of Champ, the socially handicapped friend portrayed by Ryan Lee. He and Black have the best comedic timing and laugh-out-loud lines in the film, helped in no little extent by the cleverly timed scene cuts.
At the end of the day, this is a film that would be perfect for a weekend watch with the whole family; to have on something that the kids would enjoy and at the same time won’t double as naptime for the parents. With clever humour scattered here and there across a mostly campy plot, Letterman’s film is sure to catch hold of your nostalgic horns and is aimed at serving those who grew up reading the books, but not many else. Revealing a cheesy theme towards the end, this is a film that will not satisfy horror fans but resembles more a television film working on a huge budget. With forced character arcs and awkward moments filled throughout its runtime, the film is only a little better than what most of you expect it to be. Something about the glossy and effects-filled monsters in the film makes me feel that the book series should have stayed with the unsettling creepiness that only 90s television and its practical effects can provide. Perhaps understanding this, Goosebumps strays away from the small-town creepiness that ran rampant in the books, and instead opts for light-hearted comedy set against werewolves and ghouls. Perhaps it is better that it did.
[There is, however, a pleasing credits sequence (again, strictly for fans like most things in the movie) tracing the original ‘Goosebumps’ covers from the 90s that is worth waiting for.]