Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Rob Letterman
Stars: Jack Black, Dylan Minnete, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons.
With some 200 titles to his credit prolific author R L Stine has been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature”, and to date has sold over 400 million copies of his series of comic horror stories that reworked many familiar monsters for the young adult market. There was also a successful tv series adapting his stories which ran from 1995-1998.
Rather than basing this feature film on one specific book in the Goosebumps series, this film takes a more creative approach and gives us a host of monsters that leap from the pages of Stine’s books. Goosebumps takes the usual formula of Stine’s stories and expands on the cliched structure. The film also gives us a fictionalised version of the author himself, here played by an exuberant Jack Black, largely cast against type. What is most surprising is that the concept works quite well!
Darren Lemke’s screenplay for Goosebumps remains reasonably faithful to Stine’s source material, and captures the tone of his stories which have inspired a generation of younger readers. The film follows the usual template of Stine’s own books; here the dialogue is snappy and the inventive action set pieces well done. There are also a few light hearted quips at the expense of fellow horror writer Stephen King.
Lemke has also paid homage to a number of classic 80s horror films in his busy script. Visually the film also resembles 80’s horror films like Monster Squad. Goosebumps also seems inspired by Jumanji, the fantasy film in which a board game came magically to life.
Hoping for a fresh start following the death of his father, clean cut teen Zach (played by Dylan Minnette, from Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, etc) has just moved into the town of Madison with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan), who has just been appointed as the new assistant principal at the local high school. He immediately strikes up a conversation with Hannah (Odeya Rush, from The Giver, etc) the beautiful girl next door, until her overprotective father (Black) warns him to stay away. Thinking that Hannah is being mistreated by her weird father, Zach breaks into the house with the help of his new best friend, the nerdy Champ (Ryan Lee, from Super 8, etc).
But he discovers that Hannah’s father is the reclusive author R L Stine himself, who keeps the magical Goosebumps books under lock and key in a secret library. Zach inadvertently opens one, releasing the Abominable Snowman, who wreaks a trail of destruction throughout the town. Apparently the only way to stop the creature is to trap him and put him back into the book.
Unfortunately another, more malevolent creation has also been released. Mr Slappy is a psychopathic ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Black) intent on revenge on Stine for keeping him locked away inside a book for years. He releases all of Stine’s most famous monsters – including a werewolf, murderous gnomes and even zombies – on the town, and burns the books to prevent our heroes from recapturing them. The race is on to save the town and recapture the monsters via a magic typewriter and some ingenuity.
The director is Rob Letterman, who is better known for his work on animated films like Shark Tale and Monsters Vs Aliens. He is a dab hand with animation, and he incorporates a raft of impressive CGI created monsters into the live action quite seamlessly. He also downplays the horror elements to ensure that the film remains reasonably family friendly, generally playing the monsters for laughs. A scene involving ceramic gnomes attacking our heroes is played for mischief rather than outright scares.
Letterman also previously worked with Black on the disappointing reworking of Gulliver’s Travels, but he seems to know how to draw a more restrained performance from his usually over the top star, who here dials back his trademark intensity and hyperactive mannerisms. Black plays Stine as a curmudgeon, a distrusting recluse who has shut himself away from the world, but he gets very little to do that is funny. As he battles with the real demons he has created, Stine is also forced to face up to the more personal demons that have troubled his psyche, and he suffuses the character with a touch of pathos. Black also voices the creepy character of Mr Slappy, and obviously relishes the puns and cheeky one-liners, which add a touch of dark humour and menace.
The bulk of the comedy comes from the scene stealing Lee, who brings a touch of humour to his performance as the geeky and goofy sidekick Champ. Jillian Bell (from 22 Jump Street) also provides some humour in her role as Zach’s eccentric aunt Lorraine. There is palpable chemistry between Minnette and Rush, which adds a bit of spark to their cliched teenage romance. There is also a clever cameo from Stine himself towards the end of the film.
At one stage, Tim Burton was attached to the film, and it would have been interesting to see the results of his idiosyncratic visual approach and cinematic sensibility on this material. Not doubt it would have been edgier and less family friendly!