Goosebumps is Horror 101 for your kids
I used to get in trouble for reading Goosebumps in church. They were pretty much the only kids’ books I actually read as a kid, and at one point I had the whole set. As I grew older, though, and I graduated to more mature forms of horror, I was happy to leave Goosebumps behind, eventually giving my set of books to a little kid down the street who liked scary stories. So when a Goosebumps movie was announced, I was a little worried. The current trend of nostalgia in cinema is more about grown-ass adults clinging to childhood than reinventing the things we loved as kids for a new generation, and I did not want to see Grimdark Goosebumps. It’s okay for some stuff to just be for kids—we can remember a thing fondly and still admit that it is no longer for us. Which is exactly the attitude adopted by the Goosebumps movie, which is 100% FOR KIDS.
Starring Jack Black as author R.L. Stine, Goosebumps introduces kids to horror with a combination of jump scares and slapstick. The movie begins with Zach (Dylan Minnette, who looks like a baby Hemsworth) moving to the small town of Madison, Delaware. His father has died, and his mother relocated them in an attempt at a fresh start. There’s a thread of dealing with loss in Goosebumps that puts it a cut above throwaway kiddie entertainment, but the ending goes back on the lesson in letting go in order to serve up a more conventionally happy resolution. You can practically hear the studio exec shouting, “Make it happy, dammit!” and it comes off especially cheap in the year of Inside Out.
Zach quickly meets his neighbors, Hannah (Odeya Rush, The Giver) and her weirdly intense father, “Mr. Shivers”. As Stine/Shivers, Black is borderline hammy and will likely annoy adults, but I saw this with an audience full of kids, and they were thrilled by him, laughing even when the joke was aimed more at their parents—there are a couple digs at Stephen King that children won’t get—because Black knows how to play to children as an audience. And the story isn’t that complicated and the pacing is quick enough to keep antsy kids engaged, with a repetitive plot, which, again, won’t appeal much to adults but is designed to make Goosebumps easy for kids follow.
Hannah is somewhat mysterious and Zach is instantly smitten, and he’s also convinced Mr. Shivers is mistreating his daughter in some nebulous fashion. So he calls the cops but when they knock on Mr. Shivers’s door, Hannah is nowhere to be found. Veep’s Timothy Simons has a small part as a local officer and he’s very funny for the few minutes he’s on screen. The adult casting in Goosebumps is strong—Amy Ryan basically reprises Holly Flax as Zach’s mom, but she’s so likeable and warm in that role; Ken Marino is on hand for comic relief; and Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street, Workaholics) steals every scene she’s in. Minnette and Rush aren’t bad, either, but Ryan Lee as comedy sidekick Champ is intolerable. Lee made a similar character type work in Super 8, though, so the problem here seems to be more about the writing—Champ has the worst jokes/dumbest subplot.
The thrust of the movie is that Stine’s monsters are real, and come to life if the original Goosebumps manuscripts are opened. The kids open a book because hijinks and unleash the Abominable Snowman, but it’s Slappy the Dummy who takes mainstage as the central villain. Slappy, also voiced by Black, is basically Stine’s son, and he’s furious about being locked away for years. Slappy is not even creepy, let alone scary, and is the only real letdown in the movie. At the very least he should have had a foreboding presence on screen, but he’s just goofy. Much more effective are the Graveyard Ghouls, and the Lawn Gnomes nail the horror/comedy combination in a Gremlins-inspired kitchen attack.
The climactic monster fight takes place during a school dance, introducing young audiences to one of horror’s central tropes, and is mostly satisfying. The movie moves from one set piece to another and each is pretty much the same—kids confront monster, kids flee monster—which is not going to work for sophisticated movie-goers, but the little kids at the screening were super into it. Goosebumps is designed for them, and it’s nice to see the nostalgia trend work not to reclaim a kiddie property for adults, but to reimagine a beloved story for a new generation. Goosebumps is not a faithful adaptation of the books, but it is a fun introduction to horror for kids.