As one character reminds us in the film, Goosebumps was not a book series you read to your kids to get them to sleep; rather, it was one to keep them awake from fright. The bestselling book series for kids, as well as the television series based on the books, burst onto the scene in the ’90s and introduced an entire new generation to the wonders of horror.
As someone who holds R.L. Stine’s series in a special, nostalgic place, the prospect of a Goosebumps film seemed interesting enough, though not without its obstacles and expectations.
The resulting film takes the interesting approach of ditching the anthology approach — something that worked great for the show but wouldn’t translate for cinema — and placing Stine as a character trying to fix the chaos after his creations are released and run amok. While the movie benefits from a game cast, a memorable monster or two, and more terrific music work from Danny Elfman, Goosebumps is also brought down by an abscess of atmosphere regarding its fright factor.
The movie may be self-aware about the series’ ability to haunt kids’ dreams, but the Goosebumps movie itself just isn’t that scary for any age. Instead of going for chills and fright, the team behind Goosebumps is more interested in making a light romp with its horror elements that can be easily digested for minimal fuss.
Maybe I’m just a woefully out of touch old coot (at least in relation to how old Goosebumps is) but I distinctly remember Goosebumps being… well, frightening. Spine-tingling. Hair-raising. Full of danger and sinister twists. Cheesy and dated as it may be, even the ’90s TV show had some striking imagery to get under kids skin. These are things the movie just isn’t.
It’s a totally fascinating social statement how this new Goosebumps caters to a new generation of kids, aiming more towards the zippy comedy and thrills made popular by brands like Marvel instead of the spookiness of old. But, to be fair, the movie seems completely poised to reel in a new age of fans. As a family adventure that just happens to be lightly tinged with terror, Goosebumps is a successful family flick that can competently entertain on a baseline level for unfamiliar audiences. And that’s a good thing, yes?
Jack Black, Jillian Bell, and the remaining cast seem to genuinely be having fun with the Jumanji treatment of Stine’s material. Director Rob Letterman is perfectly comfortable letting Black do his over-the-top mugging and the actor’s dedication to being an anti-social creep in the role actually works in the movie’s favor.
The other aspect of production that breathes real life into the film is Danny Elfman’s score. Either Danny Elfman was born to write for Goosebumps or, more accurately, Goosebumps is a ripe property for Elfman’s musical voice. Whichever you prefer. The renowned composer’s sound here harkens back to his early work with Tim Burton and fits this iteration like a glove covering an outstretched claw.
If the human cast and Elfman’s music are two instances of character in the film, the third has to be the presence of Slappy the Dummy. The most-well known Goosebumps villain, Slappy is really the only character from the books afforded any charisma or personality at all. Voiced also by Jack Black, the Dummy with a chip on his shoulder is practically a perfect translation from his smarmy literary self.
Beyond that, all the monsters we see in the movie — including lawn gnomes, ghouls, the abominable snowman of Pasadena and the werewolf of fever swamp — are all just bargain bin CGI placeholders that show up to wreak havoc [That giant praying mantis from “A Shocker on Shock Street” wasn’t messing around though. Man…].
This all goes back to the workmanlike approach to the film. The horror elements get downplayed to make room for frantic chases, when a little more style in the filmmaking and charisma in the monsters could have meant all the difference.
Will kids like Goosebumps? In all likelihood and their parents probably won’t mind it either. Was this Goosebumps purist satisfied? Meh, in a few regards, but I wish there was more to like. Did I forget to mention the amazing end credits that pay homage to Tim Jacobus’ amazing artwork for the books? Clearly. Will there be a sequel? With how much it made on such little budget, most definitely, and hopefully it will make bigger strides to live up to the mantle of Goosebumps.