It’s been a while since we’ve been treated to a memorable family-friendly horror film, but fear not, because R.L. Stine has found a new way to please fans – by unleashing his demons on the big screen. Goosebumps is essentially The Cabin In The Woods for kiddies, because it attacks the genre with the same sense of relentless fun, just with a more appropriate brand.
Instead of an Angry Molesting Tree cameo, we get a subtle Nightmare On Elm Street reference squeezed into a werewolf chase, but it’s still just as self-referential, and just as cheekily fun. Trade bloody kills for light-hearted, ghoulish guffaws, and you’ve got an immensely fun introduction to horror that’s tame enough for the youngest tikes in your clan, yet funny enough for all ages.
Dylan Minnette plays Zach, the newest inhabitant of a sleepy Delaware town that’s about to get a lot more exciting. After moving to Madison with his mother, Gale (Amy Ryan), Zach sees his new surroundings as a boring prison, but his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush) does her best to cheer him up. That’s until Hannah’s father (Jack Black) forbids her from seeing Zach, which prompts a late-night entry into Hannah’s house where Zach hopes to be her white knight.
Instead, he unlocks a book that unleashes R.L. Stine’s Abominable Snowman, and Hannah’s father eventually admits to being Stine himself. They assume only one monster got loose, but after running into Stine’s old nemesis, a talking dummy named Slappy, they find his entire catalog unleashed on their suburban slice of normalcy. It’s up to this rag-tag team, along with Zach’s new friend, Champ (Ryan Lee), to recapture all of Stine’s creations, before their town becomes a horror story of its own.
This isn’t just an all-star lineup of Stine’s most popular literary creations. At one point or another, you can see (almost) every Goosebumps villain in some form. Slappy (voiced by Black) is the monster squad’s wise-cracking general, with the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and the Werewolf of Fever Swamp as his right-hand men. From there, he’s supported by an army of ghouls, mummies, nasty lawn gnomes, a levitating poodle from Hell, and even a gelatinous blob – to name a few.
Writer Darren Lemke is aware of his ambitious want to include every single creature in Goosebumps, questioning the task as he squeaks in an inside joke for Black to throw out (about every monster being in one Stine story), but he pulls the task off. Sony Animation does a bang-up job in recreating fully CGI version of Yeti beasts, purple goo-blobs, and sneaker-ripping werewolves, and director Rob Letterman understands which characters deserve the most camera time.
Jack Black is one of the few actors who can continually stand out amongst any cast he’s included in, and he does so again as R.L. Stine. His creepy veneer dissolves as he grows closer to Zach and the cowardly Champ, and his dig at “Steve” King is utter perfection. Black is able to ground the otherwise horrific plot into a universe of mild jolts, as even his interactions with Slappy – a living doll who caused many sleepless nights in my childhood – are jovial and joke-filled. Black is the support beam that never gives way under the tremendous weight of Goosebumps, as he notches yet another lovable role as only the riotous dramatist can achieve. Even the way he angrily closes blinds is unique to his skillset, and Letterman takes full advantage of his dominating personality.
The rest of the cast is just as fun, and not typically overshadowed. Minnette flashes leading-man chops at a very young age, while Ryan Lee’s maturation is grooming him to be the goofy sidekick with ease – girly scream and all. Odeya Rush completes their trio nicely, with a female love interest for Minnette’s new kid on the block, and the three strike an enjoyable chemistry during their all-night monster hunt. Mix in Amy Ryan’s motherly charms and Jillian Bell’s bedazzling-obsessed Aunt, and you’ve got a stellar comedic cast who can make you laugh amidst terrifying situations. It’s not exactly home-run worthy, but their jobs are all executed with believable passion, and an admirable sense of adventure.
While I was more afraid of R.L. Stine’s television adaptation (hopefully because of my age), Goosebumps is a spooky, groovy thrill-ride from start to finish. It’s a bit like a Scooby Doo episode on steroids, or like a Halloween version of Pokémon, where Stine has to catch all his not-so-imaginary “friends”! Yet this isn’t about horror at all, as there’s heart and sincerity at the core of Lemke’s script, while Letterman’s focused direction never lets this motley crew of evil haunters become too big to wrangle-in. This is a Halloween treat for all ages, and one of the more successful family scarers in recent memory – because it doesn’t try to be scary.
Goosebumps respects its source material, respects the horror genre, but most of all, it respects its audience by making a genuinely funny soft-horror comedy. No monster fart jokes, no throw-away immature gags, and most of all, no cheap jump scares. Yup, Letterman’s latest certainly passes my “DO NOT DO THIS” checklist!
Goosebumps is the cinematic equivalent of an R.L. Stine page-turner, keeping all audiences entranced with a friendly balance of minimal haunts and heartfelt comedy.