Many people of a certain age will likely have memories of reading the Goosebumps books as kids in the nineties. I won’t lie; I am one such person. Author R.L. Stein’s 60-plus entry children’s horror series seemed like something of a minor phenomenon in that decade, but I have no real idea whether kids still read them today or if they’re a badly dated relic of the nineties. Either option seems fairly plausible, but I certainly haven’t seen anyone reading one of the books for many years now.
I’m also unconvinced that there’s a great deal of nostalgia out-there for this property, which is what I somewhat cynically thought might be the motivation behind this new big-screen outing. The books themselves are all very short, and are far more suited to an anthology television adaptation (which happened in the nineties) than a movie. There isn’t any one of them that would be an obvious pick for feature-length expansion either.
However, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) have come up with quite a novel way of turning the book series into a single narrative film that doesn’t involve directly adapting/combining any of the stories or taking an anthology approach, and it works very well.
In the world of Goosebumps – the film, Goosebumps – the book series also exists, but its author is a recluse who no-one really knows what became of once he ceased publication. The film begins with teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) moving from New York to the small town of Madison, Delaware with his mother, who’s to be the new school vice principle. He soon meets his next-door neighbours, fellow teenager Hannah (Odeya Rush) and her rather hostile father (Jack Black).
Driven by the belief that Hannah, who’s not allowed out of the house, may be being imprisoned, he decides to break in one evening with a friend (Ryan Lee) under the delusion that he will ‘rescue’ her. They soon discover though that her father is (a fictionalised) R.L. Stein, and he went into hiding because the creations in his books become real if the locked manuscripts are ever opened. So naturally, Zach ends up opening one and unwittingly setting a hoard of monsters loose on the town which need to be stopped.
What’s clever about this set-up is it functions perfectly well for viewers who have no familiarity with the books, (the person I saw the film with hadn’t even heard of them), but also allows them to pack in plenty of monsters and such that readers may well remember. The film also easily destroyed my cynicism in nailing the tone of being a kid-friendly horror-comedy that’s aimed squarely at family audiences, not millennials steeped in nineties nostalgia.
There are plenty of decent frights in the film that will likely work well on younger viewers, similarly the monster designs, but it never tries to go too far in that direction. It knows it’s primarily a comedy adventure film and manages to keep the horror element present throughout without it ever taking over from the comedic one.
As a comedy, it’s more of a mixed bag. Zach’s friend who’s along for the ride is a goofy kid named Champ (played by the “miniature Tom Petty” kid from This is 40) who’s main function is to be a comedy sidekick. His lines and reactions are nearly all there for this purpose and are decidedly hit-and-miss. Plus his general personality; a dork who’s relentlessly, and unsuccessfully trying to pursue hot girls, is something we’ve seen many times before and never been especially funny. He does manage to land a few laughs in the monster-related sequences though, and in general the jokes come at a fast enough pace that the ones that fall flat are quickly forgotten.
The biggest issue is really Zach himself. Dylan Minnette has a few credits to his name including Prisoners and Labor Day but here he’s occupying the position of the serious ‘straight man’ and generally comes across as quite boring. He doesn’t possess much chemistry with co-star Odeya Rush either, and their budding romance scenes fail to convince, though she fares a little better in the comedic sections than he does.
Luckily, Jack Black is there to pick up the kids’ slack. He’s had mixed successes bringing his comedy stylings to family entertainment but his work here is top-notch (perhaps more surprising considering that this is from Gulliver’s’ Travels director Rob Letterman). He sells being generally exasperated with the kids to realising he must help them and actually reveals some impressive depth to his character. There are also some decent jokes that will work better on adults, mainly coming from a couple of police officers who show up from time to time.
Overall, Goosebumps manages to be a fun enough horror-comedy-adventure to get past its bland lead, hit-and-miss humour and a last minute reveal that’s a bit of cheat. We still get a number of horror movies that go the PG-13 route, trying to be scary enough to satisfy hardened horror fans while weak enough to let kids in, and don’t really satisfy either party. Goosebumps is a rare PG horror that both restrains itself and makes the most of its rating’s allowances. I can easily imagine there being plenty of kids out there for whom this could effectively function as an introduction to horror fiction, in the same way the books once were for myself and other my age, and that’s something I’m in full support of.