Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)

Halloween comes to life.

When 2015’s Goosebumps scared up a storm, making a respectable $150 million off a $58 million budget (worldwide), a sequel was almost immediately announced by studio Sony — it did, however, have former director Rob Letterman and screenwriter Darren Lemke attached, and was set for a release in January of 2018. Things have obviously changed in the interim, as this follow-up is now helmed by Ari Sandel, The Duff (2015), and is penned by Rob Lieber, Peter Rabbit (2018), though derived from a story by Lieber and original scribe Lemke. And we’re in October of 2018, not January.

Based on the best-selling pulpy pre-teen horror novels written by R.L. Stine, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween tells a wholly original story, not centered on any of the pre-existing texts, and stars a cast of new characters — which is absolutely fine, seeing as most Goosebumps books are self-contained adventures. While not as inspired as the 2015 picture, Haunted Halloween is still a fairly fun family frightfest, offering up a breezy trick-filled treat, with enough hair-raising spooks, humor and kid-friendly scares to satisfy, the film out just in time for All Hallows’ Eve.

‘Did someone order a scare package?’

Set in the fictional sleepy town of Wardenclyffe, New York, Goosebumps 2 trails the Quinn clan. We first meet teenager Sarah Quinn (Madison Iseman) battling writer’s block, trying to smash out a college essay that could potentially get her into Columbia University. Sarah, unfortunately, has a lot of distractions, such as her hunky boo Tyler (Bryce Cass), whom we meet sneaking through her bedroom window to surprise her. Then there’s her kid brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who’s attempting to replicate Nikola Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe Tower in miniature for a school science project. Fanning the flames, Sarah’s single mother Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who works as a nurse, also needs her to look after Sonny over the Halloween holiday, given that she’d picked up some extra shifts. And of course, Sonny’s best friend Sam Carter (Caleel Harris) happens to be staying over for a few nights while his folks are out of town, making the whole ‘babysitting’ gig a bit more of a chore.

Luckily, Sonny and Sam are good at keeping themselves busy. You see, the boys, going by the name the Junk Bros, have an after-school job (or a side business) collecting discarded ‘rubbish,’ agreeing to tidy up people’s houses for little to no reward. Hired by an anonymous caller to help clean out an abandoned, ramshackle home, the duo takes on the task hoping to loot some valuables. When arriving at the estate, however, they’re hugely disappointed, finding nothing but aged useless knick-knacks, until stumbling upon a secret slot hidden behind a fireplace, revealing an old trunk buried deep inside. Opening the crate, the lads discover a dusty locked book, which could potentially be worth something. Suddenly, a creepy ventriloquist dummy appears out of nowhere with a card tucked in its pocket. Reading the inscription on said card (as you do!), the boys unknowingly wake the mischievous Slappy the Dummy (with Mick Wingert replacing Jack Black on vocals), the house, unbeknown to the boys, previously occupied by the great R. L. Stine, and the locked-away text one of his unfinished manuscripts.

‘Easy as pumpkin pie!’

Initially, things with Slappy start rather smoothly, the wooden plaything fending off a bunch of harassing classmates, led by bully Tommy Madigan (Peyton Wich). Learning that their new toy is alive lickety-split, Sonny and Sam use Slappy’s magic to lend a hand around the house, i.e. folding clothes and tidying rooms — a scene in which Slappy brings to life a couple of Street Fighter action figures is actually quite neat — the ventriloquist doll even helping Sonny finish his science project, which, at the minute, wasn’t working out very well. Being inherently sinister, Slappy swiftly takes the horseplay one step too far, pulling a ladder out from Sarah’s boyfriend Tyler, who’s setting up some decorations, and using Sonny’s Tesla Tower to tear up the science lab. Once Sarah gets wind of Slappy’s wicked shenanigans, she and the boys try to dump the dude, angering the evil dummy as a result.

Rejected from the Quinn family, Slappy returns with a vengeance, determined to cook up a family of his own, breathing life into all the town’s Halloween masks and decorations, Wardenclyffe mutating into an all-out monster mash. Now, tracing Slappy back to horror author R. L. Stine, the Quinn children have just one night to set things right before Slappy uses the town’s life-size Tesla Tower to awaken an army of hellish Halloween ghouls, wanting to transform the Quinn matriarch, Kathy, into his very own mommy.

‘ … here ghost nothing.’

Does Haunted Halloween share parallels to the first Goosebumps? You betcha! Structurally both more-or-less tell the same story, focusing on Slappy the Dummy (as antagonist) and Stine’s creepy-crawlies jumping from the page and into our world (literally and figuratively), terrorizing locals and audiences alike. If that wasn’t déjà vu enough, entire beats are borrowed from the former film — Stine’s creations are defeated by, you guessed it, being sucked back into his manuscript. Creatures, such as the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and Werewolf of Fever Swamp, also return, um, just for the heck of it, while the narrative, on the whole, feels somewhat prosaic, which is all the more frustrating given the wealth of material filmmakers could’ve drawn on. Oddly, chunks of the movie seem as though they’re ripped straight from the pages of a Fear Street novel, a series of books (also written by Stine) aimed towards teens rather than young children, this giving the proceedings a bit of a muddled tone — but hey, it’s more age-appropriate than the similarly themed-Eli Roth directed The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018). And you know how ’15’s Goosebumps had that whole nostalgia thing goin’ on, well, it’s completely absent here, Haunted Halloween coming off as a lukewarm spook-season entertainer, nothing more, nothing less.

But is it enjoyable? Absofreakinlutely! And I guess that’s what really matters, moviemakers treating audiences to a handful of amusing yelp-inducing set pieces, including a scene that sees Sonny and Sam take on a cluster of cute and colorful, albeit cranky Gummy Bears, most of the gags and jokes hitting their mark also. Moreover, this new holiday screamer has doubled the number of monstrous miscreants — we have pulse-quickening pumpkin-heads (think Attack of the Jack O’Lanterns and The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight), whimsical witches with glowing green heads, a headless horseman, and a gargantuan spider made of purple balloons — the film’s collection of frightsters fairly inspired. It’s a bit of a bummer, though, that this sophomore feature cost about $23 million less than its predecessor, this budget drop doing a disservice to some of the otherwise excellent bogeymen designs. And this extends to the visual effects, which are scarily subpar, created by lesser-known VFX houses Pixomondo and Mr. X, despite the fact that Sony Pictures Animation produced the flick — go figure! Its biggest hit, however, is its lifeless direction, moviemaker Sandel’s shot choices lacking bite and excitement, the whole thing possessing a straight-to-DVD/ Disney Channel-type vibe.

‘Let’s get this party startled!’

Performances are decent for a film of this ilk, with 21-year-old Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), being the cast standout from the relative unknowns. In smaller roles, comedian Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), has a few funny lines as the Quinn’s holiday-obsessed neighbour Mr. Chu, who’s decked his home with a cornucopia of fiendish fandangle, whereas Chris Parnell, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018), seems to be enjoying himself under mounds of silicone and prosthetics as store manager Walter, who’s eventually transformed into an ogre and becomes Slappy’s right-hand monster, both characters somewhat superfluous overall. On a side note, Jack Black pops up for a scene or two in the climax, his brief appearance reminding us just how integral the guy was to first film’s success, the funnyman’s child-like energy and steady presence revitalizing the action at just the right moment. Apparently, Black’s uncredited cameo has been left out of Haunted Halloween’s marketing to avoid any confusion with Roth’s House with a Clock, even if Goosebumps is the superior of the two.

Harmless Halloween fluff, Goosebumps 2 is effective enough to impress its target audience, and provides just enough thrills and spills to hold the attention of anyone else for its lean 90-minute runtime. Coupled with a good ol’ trick or treat round, Haunted Halloween is a nice way for kids to chow down on their candy in the company of family and friends — though maybe wait till next Halloween, as this silly spine-chilling second chapter is probably more suited to the small screen.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is released through Sony Pictures Australia