"Goosebumps" Is Slightly Scary Fun

It might seem curious that R.L. Stine’s book series is making its big screen debut two decades after it reached peak cultural saturation, but the math says it’s no accident. The Jack Black-starrer is cleverly positioned as both nostalgia kick for 90s kids and intro to scary movies for their kids, the kind of franchise defibrillation that book publishers and movie studios alike salivate over. The only question is: is it good enough to give anyone Goosebumps again?

From splashy cover art to spooky twists, Stine’s novellas worked because of the universality of scary stories. Kids like to be scared, too. Not Stephen King-scared, but lovingly nudged in that direction.

It’s appropriate, then, that Rob Letterman’s film pumps with the blood of King’s The Shining, fictionalizing Stine (Black) and turning his creations against him – the id of the writer versus the ego. This idea is brought to life in lead villain Slappy, an evil ventriloquist dummy, wonderfully voiced by Black himself.

Dylan Minnette (“Let Me In”) spearheads the story as Zach, an ordinary high schooler whose mom, Gale (Amy Ryan, “Birdman”), has just accepted a new job as a Vice Principal in suburban Delaware. Their new neighbors – an especially curmudgeonly, reclusive Stine and daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush, “The Giver”) – are extraordinarily strange, a dynamic that eventually gives the narrative its bent. But writer Darren Lemke spends an eternity getting there.

The movie putters around for nearly 45 largely Black-less minutes before unleashing a single monster, finally picking up steam once Zach uncovers Stine’s collection of manuscripts and unwittingly unlocks one of them. From there, Black becomes a permanent fixture and the screenplay tightens up, treating its audience to a steady stream of enjoyable human-versus-monster setpieces and delightful dummy-based physical comedy.

Apart from Jack Black, whose prickly demeanor and antiquated vocal affect meld for a surprisingly likable performance, Jillian Bell (“22 Jump Street”) is the human standout, as underused as she is. The comedienne brings her typically superb brand of sarcasm mixed with incredulity to the role of Zach’s overzealous Aunt, making it a total bummer when her action moves off-screen.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag – funnyman Ken Marino is criminally misspent – but there’s a fun character-based twist at the end of act two and some nods to a few horror classics that some older kids might even appreciate.

Since many of the series’ most memorable books were part of the “Goosebumps” TV series that ran from 1995-1998, the movie’s greatest hits approach feels right. Although the silliness here skews younger than the books did, frequently coming off as live action cartoon instead of campfire story brought to life, it helps to counteract the turgid pacing of the first act and hold the attention of younger viewers.

By the time the end credits explode into a pastiche of original Goosebumps book covers, both radicals are rookies are more likely to remember what they liked than what they didn’t. Whether or not audiences like it enough to make a film franchise of a twenty year-old book series: that’ll be the real twist.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 16, 2015
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Rob Letterman
Screenwriter: Darren Lemke
Starring: Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino
MPAA Rating: PG (for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor)