From Page to Scream: Revisiting Goosebumps

Jack Black is R.L. Stine in one of the more meta Hollywood films of recent memory. Cal gives it another look. 

The Goosebumps brand was tremendously popular in the 1990s, with a string of horror novels by author R.L. Stine that terrified an entire generation of children. There was even a TV show adaptation and a number of computer games, but 2015’s Goosebumps denotes the first time that the brand has extended to the big screen, seeking to appeal to a whole new generation of viewers (whose parents likely grew up with the books). Rather than an omnibus picture or a simple adaptation of a single Stine chiller, the screenplay by Darren Lemke (based on a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) is set in the “real” world and features as many monsters and creatures as possible, within a narrative reminiscent of Jumanji and, to some extent, the recent Pixels. Even though it is slightly skewiff around the edges, Goosebumps is downright enjoyable and often charming, which is probably more than most movie-goers were expecting.

After the death of his father, Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves from New York to a small town in Delaware for a fresh start with mother Gale (Amy Ryan). Zach almost instantly takes a shining to Hannah (Odeya Rush), the cute girl living next door, but a friendship between the pair is strictly forbidden by her reclusive father, R.L. Stine (Jack Black), who goes by the fake name of “Mr. Shivers.” Suspecting that Hannah may be the victim of domestic abuse, Zach and new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) break into Stine’s house where they discover a library of locked “Goosebumps” manuscripts. Before Hannah or Stine have the chance to stop them, the two open one of the manuscripts, unleashing the manifestation of the monster contained within the pages. In the ensuing scuffle, all of Stine’s titles are opened, giving life to dozens of ghoulish creations. To save the town, Zach, Champ, Stine, and Hannah work to track down the author’s original typewriter, which is the only thing capable of writing an end to the chaos.

Tim Burton was slated to produce a Goosebumps feature in the 1990s, following in the shadow of the TV show, but it never came to fruition. Reportedly, many of the narrative broad strokes from Burton’s planned iteration were carried over to this version, which feels more in line with something like Night at the Museum as opposed to Stine’s original works. There are plenty of references to the novels, though, following the heroes as they encounter the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the Abominable Snowman and the Giant Praying Mantis, but the de facto antagonist of the movie is Slappy (voiced by Black), the evil ventriloquist dummy that may unnerve smaller children. This is a fantasy chase picture at heart, and it does contain some amusing scenes and moments, including a shrewd discussion of Stephen King and mentions of Stine’s sales figures.

Goosebumps does admittedly suffer from hammy dialogue, some sitcom-worthy gags and a smattering of obvious clichés, not to mention the material is often played quite broadly, lacking in truly meaty scares. This is a PG endeavour which remains suitable for the younger demographic, eschewing any content that’s horrific or shocking, instead leaning on the campy monsters to provide a few mild chills without giving anybody nightmares. Surprisingly, despite being such a high-profile release, digital effects are noticeably below-par, which serves to break the sense of immersion. With the exception of Slappy (who was achieved through clever puppetry), most of the primary monsters were brought to life via some absurdly unconvincing CGI, bringing attention to the tight budget (a mere $58 million) at the least opportune time. Still, director Rob Letterman (2011’s Gulliver’s Travels) otherwise exudes confidence over the material, channelling an old-fashioned matinee vibe and maintaining a taut pace from start to end. Added to this, composer Danny Elfman provides a playful, flavoursome original score that delivers everything we have come to expect from the regular Tim Burton collaborator.

Black settles on an agreeable tone as Stine, scoring laughs with relative ease. Even better is Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street), a scene-stealer as Zach’s bedazzle-crazy Aunt Lorraine. The film definitely could have used more of the agreeably daffy Bell, who delivers her limited dialogue with plenty of spunk. The younger actors are not quite on the same level as their seasoned co-stars, though, with Ryan Lee in particular growing a tad irksome as the over-the-top Champ. Luckily, Minnette and Rush fare better, and share a sweet on-screen relationship. Flaws notwithstanding, Goosebumps gets more right than wrong. It’s an entertaining, PG-rated fantasy adventure that’s by no means a chore to sit through, and in an age where kids movies are oftentimes unwatchable, this is good enough. The fact that it does have real charm and laughs, and it’s possible to care about the characters on some level, counts for something.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • During the 1990s, George A. Romero was hired to adapt the book series into a single film and even finished a draft.
  • Jack Black reportedly based his performance on Orson Welles.
  • When Zach first enters Stine’s basement he is scared by a cuckoo. In R.L. Stine’s The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, the main character Michael Webster travels back in time and messes up the space-time continuum.
  • This is not the only Stine related project for Dylan Minnette and Ryan Lee; they’ve both appeared on the TV series, R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour (2010).

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