With the first book in the series being released in 1992, it’s surprising the Goosebumps franchise only started haunting cinemas as late as 2015. A large part of the problem is perhaps in the execution. How do you even begin to adapt an anthology series full of memorable characters, outside of giving it a TV show like they did in the 90s? Well, the obvious answer would be to do a portmanteau; squeezing three of the more popular stories into a two-hour feature and seeing if it sticks. That’s how I’d certainly do it, but I’m not Sony Pictures.
Goosebumps, from director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs Aliens) and screenwriter Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer), goes down the route of a traditional narrative, culminating in a showy finale that appears to be the prerequisite of all blockbusters currently. It’s not as bad as it sounds.
Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) has moved with his mum to the picturesque town of Madison after the death of his father. Struggling with the instant curse of being the new kid in school, as well as his mother being the vice principal of said school, Zach’s only real ray of light comes in the shape of Hannah (Odeya Rush), his next-door neighbour. Hannah is pretty, fun to be around and available. However, she’s also the daughter of Mr Shivers (Jack Black), a grumpy so-and-so who is quick to banish his daughter from seeing Zach.
Mr Shivers is, in actuality, famous author RL Stine, whose horror creations are real and trapped in locked books upon his shelf. When Zach accidently opens one of these books, it’s up to him, Hannah and Stine to put everything right.
Whilst I’ve already hinted that Goosebumps is a traditional narrative, it’s middle section is built out of episodic adventures where Zach and the gang go up against different creatures from Stine’s imagination. Things only become more cohesive once Stine’s ultimate creation – and fan favourite – Slappy the Living Dummy (Jack Black as well) escapes and tries to take over Madison. This gives the film some thrust and something to aim for, and, in doing so, manages to keep the film’s head above water for the rest of its running time. It’s not completely perfect, but when it works, it works well.
With zombies, giant manatees, killer clowns and psychic poodles parading through Madison on the hunt for Zach, Goosebumps at times feels like a watered-down version of Cabin in the Woods. Like the true antagonists of that film, all the horrors faced in Goosebumps come from Stine’s mind. He tells us regularly that he writes his tales to scare the kind of people that were mean to him as a child. Black manages to play this off fairly well, without being overzealous in his performance. It’s rare we get to see Black do something outside of his comfort zone, and it’s a pleasure to see it even in family friendly fare such as this.
For fans of the books, this is the quickest way to see all your favourites on screen at once. Though most will have to make do with seeing their favourites in short bursts, with the film only being able to give so much time to so many. Those who haven’t dip their toes in the real RL Stine’s work are likely to have just as good time as anyone else sitting down to watch it. And, in fact, with its mild scares, cartoonish threats of violence and references to b-movies such as The Blob, Goosebumps is the perfect gateway film to get your little ones into appreciating the horror genre.
Surprisingly funny and fuelled by a desire to charm the pants off you, Goosebumps is the ideal film for families who don’t mind things that go bump in the night. If you liked Paranorman, then you’ll like this just as much.