Three teenagers inadvertently release chaos, monsters and an unedited first draft on small-town Delaware.
The idea behind GOOSEBUMPS is a good one: R.L. Stine’s collection of his hugely popular GOOSEBUMPS books are somehow capable of releasing their monsters if opened, teenager new to the town accidentally opens a book, calamity ensues. However, the film never seems to gel sufficiently – not even with the appearance of the blob that ate everyone.
The film begins with our introduction to Zach, the teenage protagonist dealing with the death of his father and the move to a new town. It’s hard to believe Zach’s inner torment, as related by his mother to her sister, the wacky yet sweet-in-small-doses Aunt Lorraine. In the world of film, it’s difficult to make the audience believe that a character has withdrawn from his mother in grief when he quips with her about the town they’ve moved to and easily explains how difficult it is for him to be the son of the new teacher at school. Unlike Joe in SUPER 8, Zach doesn’t get much of an arc to deal with the loss of his father and suffers more loss during the film’s events.
Zach soon meets Hannah, the overprotected daughter of his reclusive next door neighbour, and Champ, the school dork who makes his own business cards – fortunately, Ryan Lee plays the character so well that he doesn’t just become an annoyance. After a confusing incident involving a silhouetted argument between Hannah and her father, Zach decides to break into Hannah’s house to see if she’s all right, along with Champ, and finds a bookcase full of locked GOOSEBUMPS manuscripts. Of course, the key to unlock them is easy to find and of course, one of the books is unlocked. What then ensues is standard PG-rated horror fare: the CG monsters which literally jump off the pages seem more of a low-level threat than real danger, even when they threaten to take over the town, and an appropriate, if unbelievable, solution is found and deployed just in time.
GOOSEBUMPS has the potential to be a better film than it is. The CGI is good, the teenage actors are excellent – kudos to Odeya Rush for getting the best out of her character – and the premise, as mentioned, is interesting. Unfortunately, the film is let down by Jack Black’s casting – while he can be great (see TROPIC THUNDER or SCHOOL OF ROCK), he doesn’t suit the role of R.L. Stine and it shows. Stine is too twitchy, too explosive, too off-putting as a character to make you forget for one moment that it’s Jack Black on the screen. Hampered with a semi-English accent that makes him sound nothing like the real R.L. Stine and shoehorning in a reference to director Rob Letterman’s previous film with Black, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, Black rarely seems comfortable in his role. There are some good moments – his moments of exposition and rivalry with ‘Steve King’ are well-played – and casting him as the voice actor for Slappy, the puppet Hyde to his Jekyll, works extremely well. Slappy, the most intelligent of the monsters, has enough of a creep factor for his later scenes to trigger a twinge of fear – notably, he’s also involved in one of the very few times a character is physically hurt.
Miscasting isn’t GOOSEBUMPS’ only problem. Other, unnecessary additions to the film, such as some annoyingly inept cops and the creepy teacher who keeps trying to flirt with Zach’s mother confuse the film’s direction, making it hard to keep track of whether it’s meant to be a straight-up family horror, horror comedy or horror with a small road trip and several romantic subplots.
For fans of the GOOSEBUMPS books and television adaptations, this isn’t a great film. There are some nice blink-and-you’ll-miss them nods to various GOOSEBUMPS stories, as well as the opportunity to spot your favourite monster and a small cameo from the real R.L. Stine, but it’s possible to work out the film’s twist before it’s revealed and the two surprises at the end of the film are lacklustre and make little sense. The film as a whole suffers from tacked-on relationships and half-cooked background stories, making the film a far cry from the tight plots of R.L. Stine’s books.
As a family film, despite its problems, GOOSEBUMPS works. It may not be the most original horror film and could be more frightening without bumping up the gore (for a truly scary PG-rated film, try CORALINE), but it’s interesting enough to keep its audience engaged. Watch it without any expectation of similarity to the actual GOOSEBUMPS series and you’ll be reasonably entertained.