I confess I read Goosebumps as a child. Or I think I did, anyway. Wikipedia informs me the series of “scary” books for kids – cranked out by author R.L. Stine between 1992 and 1997 – has sold over 400 million copies worldwide. But I had no idea anyone still read them, and I honestly don’t remember a single story from them.
Well, apparently someone sure does, or someone’s still reading them, because they’ve adapted the books into a movie. And honestly, the film’s central conceit isn’t bad: It turns out R.L. Stine (Jack Black) has gone into hiding in a small New England town, jealously guarding his privacy and that of his daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush). But there’s a good reason for his reclusion: he’s discovered that, by some bizarre magic, the original manuscripts for all his books bring the monsters in them out into the real world. So he keeps the manuscripts safely locked and squirreled away in his home… until some neighborhood kids break into his house, open one of the manuscripts, and all hell breaks loose.
The way Goosebumps sets all this up is actually strong. The neighborhood kids in question are newcomer Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) and resident geek Champ (Ryan Lee). The opening credits give us Zach and his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) driving a hatchback with a Uhaul trailer, through some sweeping-yet-uninspiring shots of the New England countryside. But composer Danny Elfman makes up for it, with bouncing, forward-driving score that’s both fun and faux-creepy.
Gale plans to take a job as assistant principal at the same high school Zach will be going to. They are, needless to say, trying to start over after tragedy took Zach’s father away. So the early scenes show them settling into the rhythms of their new life, and give us a sense of their dynamic together. Minnette is a good actor, able to move convincingly between confident wisecrackery and genuine vulnerability, and Ryan is always a solid practitioner of her craft. So at its start, Goosebumps holds out the possibility of something interesting: That we’ll get to see this crisis – literally conjured from a child’s nightmare – played out through the eyes of the teenage and the adult world at the same time, and get to see how the two worlds bounce of with and come to understand one another. But after the first act, Ryan is sidelined for the rest of the movie.
But it just so happens that Stine and Hannah live next door to the house Zach and Gale have just occupied. Hannah greets Zach from a window, and the two teenagers immediately hit off a repartee. Like Minnette, Rush is not extraordinarily gifted, but she holds her own, and the two make an appealing couple. Stine, however, does not agree, and shoos Hannah away from the window before giving Zach a stern warning to leave them alone. Things continue on like this, with Hannah and Zach absconding together, while Stine becomes more combative and hostile. Finally, Zach calls the cops, and when that doesn’t work, he recruits Champ into helping investigate. At which point, the aforementioned breaking loose of the hell occurs.
If you remember the books, or your kids read them now, I imagine the menagerie of monsters will be a hoot. There’s a giant preying mantis, a blob, a horde of homicidal garden gnomes, a group of freeze-ray toting aliens, a werewolf, an abominable snowman, and a scheming ventriloquist dummy who drives much of the action. The sequence with the gnomes is fun, and the werewolf is well-designed, although director Rob Letterman shoots him in a well-lit grocery store, which is about as unintimidating as it gets. He also fails to capitalize on the relatively cool-looking abandoned carnival park in the woods that serves as the setting for the climax.
The script – a hodgepodge by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Kraszewski – makes the admirable decision to take the magic of Stine’s books at face value. The rules it draws from the situation send Stine, Zach, Hannah and Champ on a MacGuffin-like chase through the town as the monsters tear through it. But the feeling of things is less inspired, and more rote, episodic and obligatory, especially with Ryan out of the action.
I imagine the filmmakers went with Jack Black because he’s a “comedy guy.” But as much as I like him, Black is wrong for this material. In School of Rock, he played an earnest character who intentionally hams it up to connect with the children in his class. In Goosebumps, the hamming is the character, and Black doesn’t have the acting chops to convey emotion through the stylization, or Letterman doesn’t have the chops to pull it out of him. There’s actually a moment of impassioned dialogue when Black’s clipped New England dialect slips and he goes back into his regular voice. A character actor with the willingness and ability to play it straight in an absurd situation – think Paul Giamatti in that remarkable Amy Schumer parody of 12 Angry Men – would have been able to elevate the material.
It’s especially unfortunate because Goosebumps does have one genuine twist I did not see coming, and it uses the surprise to create some real resonance between Zach and Stine’s emotional arcs. Unfortunately, the script’s dialogue is too on the nose about it, neither Minnette nor Black are able to really capitalize on the situation, and Letterman isn’t helping them out either. If matters had been otherwise, and if the film had been willing to follow the emotional logic of this twist to its inevitable conclusion, it could have generated some real pathos. But this is a kids movie, with a preordained happy ending, so the filmmakers of course whiff on the opportunity.
I will say, if your children are hyped up to see this, it won’t be an unbearable time for you either. But speaking as an adult who saw the film for myself, I regret to say the result was not goosebumps. Just resignation and vague bemusement.