Goosebumps is the kind of kid’s movie they just don’t make anymore. Parents are too overly protective of their children to let them experience the giddy highs and horrific lows this excellent film has to offer. If you are fans of the books, rejoice. Director Rob Letterman and the stellar writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) have taken the best of the series and made it meta, turning author R. L. Stine — and most importantly, his monsters — into a fascinating film about growing up and moving on.
The story centers around Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette). He and his mother (Amy Ryan) have just moved to a small town in the Northeast after the devastating death of her husband. Zach is still suffering, but perks up a bit when he meets neighbor girl Hannah (Odeya Rush). Her father (Jack Black) wants his child to have nothing to do with the boy. Zach grows suspicious, and along with his new not-quite-BFF Champ (Ryan Lee), he investigates. Turns out, the man next door is R.L. Stine, famous author of the frightening Goosebumps book series, and he has a secret. Apparently, if unlocked, his original manuscripts will unleash the monsters he created. So guess what happens.
There are an equal amount of laughs and legitimate frights here, moments when such Stine favorites as The Werewolf of Fever Swamp and the Giant Praying Mantis from A Shocker on Shock Street provide a legitimate sense of dread. There are also times when the crazed garden gnomes and our main villain, Slappy the Ventriloquist Dummy (voiced by Black as well), provide more snickers than scares. Letterman maintains the balance nicely, and his screenwriters are constantly giving the character personality beats that make us care. Indeed, real suspense can only be generated when you have a vested interest in the outcome. Goosebumps provides that pathway, and it’s a better movie experience for it.
Besides, this is like the greatest cinematic offspring Jumanji and Gremlins ever begat. Both films provide the “town invasion” premise, but unlike the former, there’s little filler. Instead, we get Zach and Champ trying to help Hannah and Mr. Stine while giant CG creatures (including an Abominable Snowman, a wave of zombies, and some clever cameos from the likes of Murder the Clown, among others) go bonkers. Kids will be enthralled. Parents will appreciate that the movie doesn’t talk down to their wee ones, and everyone will enjoy a rollicking good time. It’s almost as if Goosebumps wants to channel the matinee experience of decades past. It does so with love, and a bit of lunacy.
Yes, there are weaker elements included. Champ’s desire to date the school’s hottie seems like nothing more than a setup for a last act save, and we keep getting inferences about Hannah that become painfully obvious after a while. Black plays Stine in a hyper-cartoony manner that doesn’t always work, and when he isn’t in disbelieving hero mode, Minnette is a minimal presence. Yet because of the overriding nostalgia factor, the attention to detail, and some incredibly funny moments (a discussion of Stephen King is hilarious), Goosebumps overcomes it all. It’s fun in spite of its minor flaws, not adversely affected by them.
In fact, thanks to the welcoming intro this movie gives them, one can easily see a series of Goosebumps movies, each one concentrating on a new character to make its creator’s life miserable. Better still, with F/X catching up with a writer’s imagination, almost any of Stine’s manuscripts can become viable film fodder. The only caveat is creative. By playing up the humor and the horror, Goosebumps gives its fans exactly what they want. The rest of us can bask in the joy of the experience, and head over to our local book store to pick up a few copies for those long, late nights.