It would be a grave understatement to say that I was, in my younger years, a fan of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of books. I lapped them up like each one might be the last book I ever read, and when I got a little too old for the series, I pounced on Stine’s Point Horror novels instead. His ability to scare the pants off me without full-on traumatising me as a child is something I’ve been in awe of since; he has never once underestimated his younger audience and constantly delivered top notch scares and narratives. It was with a healthy combination of excitement and nerves that I went into this movie, hoping for the best but not necessarily expecting an awful lot.
Luckily for me, this film can most definitely be filed in the ‘win’ column. The first thing that struck me as an incredibly good idea was the choice not to adapt one single Goosebumps story; those who watched the TV adaptations will know that there’s not quite enough to each story to stretch into a feature-length presentation. Instead, screenwriter Darren Lemke and director Rob Letterman, using an idea by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski, placed all their eggs in Jack Black’s basket. Black plays Stine himself, who finds himself at the centre of chaos as the myriad of characters he created become physical and rampage around the small town in which he lives.
Black plays Stine in a relatively understated manner (in terms of Black’s usual manic characters) and the decision to use him as the centrepiece to the story is a genius one; not only does it give access to the plethora of monsters dwelling within his writings (locked until a nosy teen accidentally cracks one open) but also leads to some very humorous meta moments (a particular favourite of mine was his rant about fellow author Steven King). All of my childhood favourites were there, with the main villain of the piece being the utterly disturbing Slappy the ventriloquist dummy. Voiced by Black, Slappy is scary enough just from being a sentient dummy (those that know me well know that I’m basically scared of everything, and ventriloquist dummies are quite high on my ‘Stuff I’m Terrified Of’ list…), but Black injects an extra level of sinister craziness befitting of such a Goosebumps icon.
Complimenting Black’s performance as Stine are the three teen leads: Dylan Minnette plays Zach; the charmingly sweet boy-next-door recently moved to this small town following the passing of his father, Ryan Lee as his adorably dorky new friend Champ, and Odeya Rush as Stine’s daughter, Hannah. The four play extremely well off each other, the humour and friendship that develops throughout the movie feels natural and casual and you can easily see why the four end up working so well as a team. A special mention also has to go to Jillian Bell who plays Zach’s lovably oblivious aunt.
Whilst the latter act of the film descends into a slightly CGI-heavy gauntlet of monsters, there are still plenty of well-timed scares (particularly jump-scares, given the target audience) and the jokes are frequent and enjoyable. It also has a surprising amount of heart, deftly tackling the tough topics of death, loss and grief and never once talking down to it’s audience. It’s an easy comparison to make, but Goosebumps feels like an updated Jumanji, as our quartet try to wrangle the demons and beasts back into their books, but it still stands tall as it’s own brilliant beast.
Long story short, this movie is a delightfully creepy and fun romp that has an almost B-movie playfulness about it, but should be avoided if you’re scared of clowns. Or ventriloquist dummies. Or zombies. Or giant praying mantis’…
Reviewer: Stacey Taylor @StacebobT