I grew up on the Goosebumps books. The original collection that spanned five years (1992-1997) and 62 editions was my first real exposure to reading as a child. At six years-old I was strangely fascinated with all things horror. And in 1993, Goosebumps was a six year-old’s idea of “edgy.” If it was spooky, scary, or potentially terrifying, I was hooked or I wanted to know more, parental guidance be damned. I say all this because twenty-three years later, Hollywood has finally produced a big-screen iteration of the best-selling series. Better late than never, I suppose. Anyways, you can probably count me among the nostalgically biased, because I couldn’t stop myself from grinning through nearly the entire movie, even when the all-important teenage romance falls flat under the weight of swooning gazes and cloying musical notes. It doesn’t hurt that director Rob Letterman and co. have crafted a horror-comedy that trades in true scares for old-fashioned charm and small-town hijinks, a transaction that actually works to its benefit.
Jack Black is famed author R.L. Stine, now a recluse hiding out in the Delaware suburbs and home-schooling his daughter like a prison lord. Next door comes a mother and son moving in to escape the despair of a deceased husband and father (cue those annoying notes). Naturally, son and daughter want to run off into the woods together for innocent nightcaps atop an abandoned ferris wheel, and so the wheels are spun for tension between teenage boy and overbearing father. Those wheels bring us to revelations aplenty, and monsters galore, as Stine’s cherished manuscripts are violated and the creatures he designed literally leap off the page due to some form of fantastical…gobbledygook? I’m not sure what to call it since the movie never attempts to explain the origin of Stine’s living creations. We know it’s all due to a magical typewriter, but otherwise, much like Adam Sandler’s “The Cobbler,” it just IS. Which is fine, mostly. I just think it would have made the mythology at play more fascinating if they had delved a little deeper there. This is a kid’s movie though, so it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how much campy fun is unleashed when these monsters are unleashed. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the Lawn Gnomes, Slappy the dummy, and many more, all rendered with appropriately cartoonish but no-less involving visual effects. Letterman, Black, and young actors Dylan Minette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee are obviously in on the joke, giving the obligatory Stephen King zingers all they’ve got and playing up the script’s more buffoonish elements when need be, in particular Lee as the geeky, scared-shitless friend to Minette’s stoic protagonist. When Black’s Stine is stuck between a wrought-iron fence with zombies in pursuit, he screams that old horror adage that nobody ever means, “Go! Save yourself,” only to receive an obliging response. These knowing winks are usually clever and go a long way toward enlivening what could have been a shrill affair. Indeed, while Lee has a gift for comedy, Minette is typically boring as the sort of inexplicably brave teenager who often headlines these teenybopper plots. Besides the monsters, the true star, of course, is Black, an actor who knows exactly when to play it straight and exactly when to arch those flexible eyebrows. Assuming he returns, I wouldn’t mind a sequel at all, and given the “gotcha” ending and so-far booming box office, we might be getting one anyways.
Unlike “The Walk,” this is no masterpiece in 3D filmmaking. You can take it or leave it. Sure, there’s some nice use of depth of field, such as when a drooling werewolf launches itself at the camera, but otherwise this is your typical blockbuster conversion job. This was also my first and probably last time using Cinemark’s new D-BOX experience, another effort to recapture the gimmicky zeitgeist of the 70’s. Based on “Goosebumps,” moving chairs are not going to take off the same way 3D has in recent years. The technology is both unsubstantial and distracting at the same time. Individual moments when the chair may vibrate to simulate a character dropping something or slamming a door shut are simply unnecessary, and other occasions when the chair might shake in unison with a jump scare aren’t altogether impressive as an additive to one’s overall enjoyment. No joke, “Goosebumps” is a good time for the whole family, but don’t be tempted by this new trick from the people who brought you Smell-O’Vision.