I say this with total sincerity, friends: the Goosebumps movie is pretty damn great. The same way films like The Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, Witches, The Worst Witch, and (on a personal note) Killer Klowns from Outer Space have introduced youngsters to the world of horror (and horror comedy) in the past, Goosebumps is an excellent gateway to lifelong spooky movie geekdom. The Scholastic book series & 90s television show of the same name are now far enough in the past that their original pint-sized audience are old enough to have children of their own, which means that the film could’ve easily coasted on nostalgia to sell tickets & not given much thought to a longterm shelf-life. Instead, Goosebumps strives to stay true to its half-hokey, half-spooky source material, resulting in a film that’s genuinely funny from beginning to end, but still packs a sharp enough set of teeth that it might just keep a tyke or two awake at night. It’s a horror comedy for youngsters that resists the temptation of talking down to its audience the way lesser, similarly-minded films like Hotel Transylvania 2 would. The only film from the past decade that I could think to compare it to is ParaNorman, another well-balanced kids’ horror that I hold in high regard for universal enjoyability that allows for children & adults alike to bond over a love of famous monsters & spooky laughs. What could be more admirable than that?
The story at the heart of Goosebumps isn’t all that important, which is in its own way an important lesson for children to understand what to expect from their monster movies. A Regular Dude, his crush The Girl Next Door, and an annoying Third Wheel Nerd named Champ/Chump accidentally release an epidemic of horror movie creatures on the small town of Madison Delaware (which may as well have been Eerie, Indiana) when they tamper with R.L. Stine’s original Goosebumps manuscripts. The film is genuinely enjoyable before the monsters’ arrival (the first pleasant surprise), establishing a world of dumb small-town cops, single mothers trying their best, high school principals hell-bent on outlawing twerking (“If anyone is caught dancing with their butt facing their partner, they will be sent home immediately. Immediately!”), and kooky aunts with Etsy shops & relationship issues.
The only detail out of place in this well-manicured suburbia is the hermetic “Mr. Shivers”, a reclusive, nerdy creep who soon revealed to be the R.L. Stine. In a way, this detail itself is an intro to the meta horror of films like In the Mouth of Madness & Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, but it’s just a single facet of a larger crash course in horror as a genre. The film’s deep cast of spooky creatures include ghosts, aliens, zombies, werewolves, mummies, abominable snowmen, evil dogs, gigantic killer bugs, killer toy robots that would make Charles Band proud, (Wu-Tang) killer bees, and the list goes on. The only glaring absences I noticed were of vampires & Frankenstein monster types, but they honestly could’ve easily slipped by in the midst of the mayhem. The film also aims to collect classic monster movie settings as much as it does the creatures, making sure to hit up spooky graveyards, empty supermarkets, abandoned amusement parks, and The Big Dance in a sequence that recalls films like Prom Night & Carrie. It’s incredible how much ground the film manages to cover in its relatively short, remarkably tidy runtime.
Goosebumps holds an obvious reverence for its source material, a series of novels for horror-minded young’ns that the movie explains aren’t kids’ books, because “Kids’ books help you fall asleep. These books keep you up all night.” Although the film hosts some great work from lovely people like Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, and Danny Elfman (whose theremin & violin-heavy score is pitch-perfect), it’s Jack Black who stands out as the physical embodiment of that child-adult bridge. Black is a hoot as R.L. Stine, portrayed here as a dastardly nerd so intense in his reclusiveness that his imaginary creations became real (the monsters take shape from black swirls of ink when released from their manuscript prisons). I particularly like his situational one-liner “I have a deadline . . . literally,” and his indignation with being compared to Steven King. Black is also given the opportunity to cut loose in his secondary voice performance as an animatronic ventriloquist doll named Slappy (who appeared in no less than ten novels). Most outright “bad” jokes in the film are attributed to the dummy, which makes total sense logically, but also further solidifies Black’s central role as Goosebumps‘ hokey-scary vibe personified, thanks to the fact that dolls are effortlessly creepy & just the worst.
If there are any longterm Goosebumps fanatics out there who remember the specific details of the dozens of title in the catalog, I’m sure that there pare plenty of in-jokes and winking references ready to delight you. Certain details (like a levitating poodle & an invisible prankster) went way over my head, but the titles I did remember from my schoolchild, such as The Haunted Mask & The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, were also prominently featured in the movie. There’s also a concluding credits sequence that pays loving homage to the series’ wonderful cover art. What’s more important than Goosebumps‘ fielty to R.L. Stine’s past, however, is its loving reflections of the past of horror at large.
Obviously, mileage may vary based on individual kids’ personalities & tastes, but I have no doubt there will be large swaths of young children growing up with fond memories of this film the same way my generation fondly looks back at The Monster Squad as an early horror favorite. I noticed at least five walkouts during my screening of Goosebumps (not to mention that the film is sadly struggling to earn back its budget), but there were plenty of other kids in the audience intensely invested in the goofy mayhem. Of course, I personally would’ve preferred if Goosebumps had been anchored more by practical effects rather than its somewhat tiresome CGI (although there were some genuinely effective visual cues like a beautiful funhouse mirror sequence & a sad little box labeled “Dad’s Stuff” in the film) but the younger generation of kids in the audience are highly likely not to care about that distinction. For them, the film is more or less perfect as a primer for horror & horror comedy as a genre, CGI warts & all and, honestly, that’s all that really matters.