The stories are alive
Having captured the imagination of young readers since hitting bookstores back in 1992, it’s surprising to think that it’s taken this long for the global phenomenon Goosebumps to be re-worked for the big screen — a literary franchise (designed to give it’s reader the chills) penned by critically acclaimed children’s writer R.L. Stine. Granted, famed genre filmmakers George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands (1990), were previously attached to adapt the material at some point during the ‘90s — be that as it may, both projects regrettably fell through. So here we are, some twenty years on, and Stine’s celebrated stories have finally found a home on the silver screen in a live-action motion picture rendering — albeit about ten years too late.
Goosebumps tells the story of teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette), who (after the death of his father) reluctantly moves from the hustle-and-bustle of New York City to the quiet town of Madison, Delaware, with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan), who has just taken on a job as the new vice-principal at the local high school. Zach is less than impressed with the shift, and his mother’s new position, though finds a ‘break in the clouds’ when he discovers that a gorgeous young girl, Hannah (Odeya Rush), is living right next door. Unfortunately, upon Zach’s attempts to try and introduce himself, Hannah’s outlandish, overprotective father, ‘Mr. Shivers’ (Jack Black) — who we later find out is R.L. Stine in disguise, author of the bestselling Goosebumps series — warns Zach to stay away from his homeschooled daughter and their property.
As it turns out, the more Zach learns about his mysterious neighbors, the more he begins to fear for Hannah’s life, slowly coming to the absurd conclusion that Hannah may be a victim of abuse in her own home. One evening, after hearing Hannah scream — following an argument that had just broken out between her and her father — Zach immediately phones the police, fearing that the worst may have happened. When law enforcement does arrive, in the form of Officer Stevens (Timothy Simons) and his overeager female trainee, Officer Brooks (Amanda Lund), Mr. Shivers assures the troopers that nothing is wrong and that the shriek Zach had heard was merely a sound that had come from the television. Unsatisfied with the shoddy explanation, Zach tricks Mr. Shivers into going to the police station for further questioning while he and his new self-appointed best-friend — a coward who’s ironically named Champ (Ryan Lee) — decide to break into the residence and rescue the damsel in distress.
When inside, Zach soon unearths Hannah’s inexplicable family secret after unintentionally releasing the 12-foot Abominable Snowman of Pasadena from its slumber, a creature that had been trapped inside one of Stine’s manuscripts; it’s here Zach learns Mr. Shivers’ true identity (being famous writer R.L. Stine) and that the infamous monsters conjured up in his Goosebumps novels are, in fact, all real, Stine having locked them away in order to protect his readers. In an attempt to contain the escalating mayhem, Zach, Champ and Hannah endeavor to recapture the Yeti (all on their lonesome), hoping to send the beast back to its resting place (the pages from whence it came) before Stine finds out what had happened. Alas, the trio quickly realize that the rest of Stine’s creations had also escaped from their paper prisons, having literally leapt off the page and into our world. Now, these three unlikely heroes, who are soon joined by Stine himself, have just one night to round up the figments of Stine’s imagination and make things right again before Madison descends into chaos and the ghoulish fiends harm its townsfolk.
With a plethora of Goosebumps yarns to pick and choose from, how does one do justice to Stine’s storm of inspired material? I know, combine all the legendary characters into one spine-tingling adventure and then get the ‘tenacious’ Jack Black in on the façade as the notorious novelist himself, R.L. Stine. And wah-lah folks, there you have it, Hollywood’s answer to a Goosebumps movie. I must admit, the overall structure (as Stine would put it, the beginning, the middle, and the customary twist ending) certainly emulates that of its source rather fittingly with the film working as an exciting, agreeable tween scream, however, the narrative itself is pretty hackneyed, which is kinda ironic, considering it features one of the world’s most passionate storytellers; but then again, all the Goosebumps tales were more or less indirectly ripped off other works of fiction — Stephen King anyone?
Be that as it may, the general plot itself reads … I mean plays out like a typical Goosebumps novella; it’s a hair-raising yet kid-friendly affair featuring teenagers triumphing over dark forces, safe scares and those foreseeable moral lessons that often found their way into Stine’s writings. And one can’t forget the scattershot humor that creeps into proceedings along the way, with sly self-referential gags and winks blatantly reminding us (and those unfamiliar with the anthology) of the franchises’ former paperback glory. Even so, with evident parallels to ‘90s family-centered fantasy romps, one can’t help but make comparisons to the similarly themed Jumanji (1995) — a film that was released by the same studio (Sony Pictures) some twenty years earlier — with Goosebumps coming across as a lively throwback to a cinematic era gone by, in turn submitting to (and sometimes even mocking) its own dated tropes.
The visual blueprint of this PG-rated carnival of terrors is a real treat with the suburban setting operating as a wickedly cool backcloth for the supernatural story to unfold; an abandoned amusement park situated out in the woods — where the final showdown explodes into action — stands to be the most aesthetically pleasing stage set, one that wholly encapsulates the eeriness and uncanny complexion of Stine’s work. When it comes to the ‘creature compendium,’ the film’s bogeymen are somewhat cartoonish by design, but hey, this is a youngsters’ entertainer after all. This horde of gnarly beasties — predominantly computer-animated, brought to life by VFX house the Moving Picture Company (MPC) — includes an army of mischievous Lawn Gnomes (taken from the Goosebumps title Revenge of the Gnomes), whose rigid style of motion compliments the garden sprites’ devilish disposition; the Werewolf of Fever Swamp (last seen in the book of the same name); a 50-foot Praying Mantis (from A Shocker on Shock Street), though the film’s Mantodea is significantly larger, and more in line with a real life mantis than the one presented in Stine’s novel; and the adorable yet deadly Vampire Poodle Fifi (taken from the Goosebumps story Please Don’t Feed the Vampire!), simply to name a few.
Working off a playfully kooky script, penned by screenwriter Darren Lemke, Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) — with top-echelon writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Big Eyes (2014), earning a story credit — a game Jack Black, School of Rock (3003), embodies a semi-fictionalized version of the YA novelist R.L. Stine; it’s a role the funnyman really sinks his teeth into, hitting all the right beats — be it delicate or subtle to over-the-top and comedic, he is totally en pointe. Black also voices the flick’s chief villain, and Stine’s altar ego, the sadistic Slappy the Dummy (arising out of Stine’s Night of the Living Dummy text) — who believes it’s now his turn to (excuse the pun) ‘pull the strings’ — with the ventriloquist doll’s outer shell freakishly resembling that of the 46-year-old actor-comedian-musician; interestingly, Black also supplies the voice of the Invisible Boy, consequently providing the vocals for the only monster characters who have dialogue in the film.
Offering up their talent and assistance, Black is joined by a well-rounded support cast; Dylan Minnette, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014), takes on the role of main protagonist, hunky high-schooler Zach — and brings to mind, dare I say, a young Freddie Prince Jr. — we have a scene-stealing Ryan Lee, Super 8 (2011), as the socially awkward scaredy-cat Champ (Zach’s reluctant wingman), and last but not least, blue-eyed bombshell Odeya Rush, The Giver (2014), as Hannah, Stine’s enigmatic daughter, who gives the horror some much needed heart; the young performers’ palpable chemistry clearly visible up on screen. Special mention also goes out to the immensely striking young actress Halston Sage, Paper Towns (2015), who’s slowly gaining notoriety and makes an appearance here as high-school sweetheart Taylor. Be sure to look out for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by the big man himself, R.L. Stine, who pops in for a tongue-in-cheek role as the drama teacher Mr. Black.
When the picture folds and a brilliantly convinced credit sequence, where iconic Goosebumps artwork (based on original cover illustration) comes to life over a zany, mid-1980’s inspired Danny Elfman, Beetlejuice (1988), score, long-time Goosebumps enthusiasts — or those who grew up on the stories — are sure to find themselves mystified or just that wee bit wistful.
Faring better than its cheap telly incarnation (that aired between the years 1995 to 1998), director Rob Letterman, Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), at long last, gives the fans exactly what they deserve; a decently paced ode to the Goosebumps chain, one that adequately succeeds in interpreting Stine’s tried-and-true formula, balancing giddy scares and comedy with a schmaltzy touch of sentimentality — and it’s a film that’s sure to knock the socks off any pre-teen viewer. In the wise words of Black’s Stine, it’s got it all, ‘twists and turns and frights … and a little personal growth for our hero.’ So, hop on board and just enjoy this ghostly funfair for what it is — a spooky, nostalgia-glazed good time.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner
Goosebumps is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia