Stars: Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Jack Black, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Halston Sage, Steven Krueger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Ken Marino | Written by Darren Lemke | Directed by Rob Letterman
As a kid growing up I was a huge horror fan, I loved reading scary novels – mainly ones I really shouldn’t have been allowed to like Graham Masterton’s Family Portrait; watching the late-night BBC double-bills or renting all the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films from the local video shop even though I wasn’t over 18; or watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? on terrestrial TV – where it suffered censorship and missing episodes – I adored horror and still do. But one thing I never got into was Goosebumps. Maybe it was because the books came too late for me – as I said I was already reading adult horror fiction by then – or maybe it was because my love for Are You Afraid of the Dark? coloured my judgement. Whatever it was, by the time the series exploded in popularity here in the UK I had deemed myself “too old” for R.L. Stine’s work.
Yet here I am reviewing a Goosebumps movie…
Why? Well there’s one thing Hollywood is undoubtedly short of these days and that is family-friendly horror. When I was growing up we had films like The Monster Squad, Arachnophobia, Gremlins, The Witches and Little Monsters. Yet in the intervening years the idea of horror films for kids has become passé. Yes we’ve had movies like Coraline, Paranorman and Monster House but they’ve always skewed on the PG end of the horror spectrum, making them more “kid-friendly” than the films of my youth.
I was hoping Goosebumps might just recapture that family horror feel. What I didn’t expect was a schlocky B-movie-esque film (iI say that as a term of endearment) that took the Goosebumps concept into an oddball, fun, meta fantasy world… that also successfully recaptured that family horror feel!
Upset about moving from a big city to a small town, teenager Zach Cooper (Minnette) finds a silver lining when he meets the beautiful girl, Hannah (Rush), living right next door. But every silver lining has a cloud, and Zach’s comes when he learns that Hannah has a mysterious dad who is revealed to be R. L. Stine (Black), the author of the bestselling Goosebumps series. It turns out that there is a reason why Stine is so strange… he is a prisoner of his own imagination – the monsters that his books made famous are real, and Stine protects his readers by keeping them locked up in their books. When Zach unintentionally unleashes the monsters from their manuscripts and they begin to terrorize the town, it’s suddenly up to Stine, Zach, and Hannah to get all of them back in the books where they belong.
The idea that Goosebumps exists in the real world, that R.L. Stine’s characters could come to life – allowing the film to feature all of his wild and wooly creations – is, in the end, a stroke of genius. The fact that there are so many monsters really ups the ante on the threat faced by our group of heroes, which in turn ups the horror of the situation. It also makes this the story of R.L. Stine rather than of one particular monster; though Slappy does feature VERY heavily – as he should, his tale was told numerous times in both book and televisual form (I believe he appeared in five or six of Stine’s tales). Which means that, in essence, this is also Jack Black’s film – given that he plays Stine. However despite some over-egging of that accent and some misguided bravado, Black never upstages his co-stars, he treats Dylan Minnette and Odeya Rush as his equals and he’s given some stiff comic-relief competition from Ryan Lee, as Champ.
Whist Goosebumps’ script and cast come together succinctly, really bringing the film to life as an “old-school” family-friendly horror, the movie is not without the odd issue; in particular when it comes to the monsters. At times the CGI is a little hokey – the werewolves running round the supermarket for example (what is it with werewolves not rendering well as CG characters? They never seem to work in ANY movie) – but other times, as with the brilliant giant praying mantis and the laser-eyes toy robots – the CG effects really bring R.L. Stine’s vision to life; much more so than in the original TV show. And Stine’s dummy Slappy is still one hell of a creepy horror villain.
There’s plenty of places for Goosebumps to go now the mythos has been established and, given the twist ending (as is pointed out numerous times in the film, it’s all about the twist) leaves things open for a sequel, I do hope we see more.
Goosebumps is previewing across the UK in selected cinemas now. The film is officially released nationwide on February 5th.