Based on the popular young-adult horror fiction series by R.L Stine, this big screen adaptation rolls like a laissez-faire ghost train with a spry demeanour and an army of malevolent beasties that jest and taunt but fail to totally terrify. Despite the meagre visuals and a rambling first act, director Rob Letterman’s film plaits creative set-pieces into a riveting second half, allowing Goosebumps to bud into a spooky pot-boiler with playful comedy and explosive supernatural hokum. It isn’t as brave or edgy as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, or even Monster House but Goosebumps also isn’t as malleable as the marketing may suggest, and avoids laying on too much quail-triggering saccharine.
Following the death of his father, teen student Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) moves with his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) to the tranquil suburb of Delaware. Upon arrival Zach befriends their mysterious new neighbour Hannah (Odeya Rush), much to the dismay of her creepy father Mr Shivers (Jack Black). Shivers forbids the teens from talking but macabre events leads them to reunite after Zach discovers a collection of ominous manuscripts in his study.
The story unfurls in a world where Stine’s novels exist. While meta-horrors are no longer so rare, it’s unusual for a mainstream family feature to embrace such an intriguing device. On the downside the frights are soft and sharp shocks, like the Ghostbusters library spectre, would have reinforced Goosebumps with a favourable edge, but there are still a few solid, creepy PG creatures. A horde of mystical beasts led by a possessed, conniving ventriloquist’s puppet called Slappy (don’t call him dummy) rain hell on Delaware, along with some spiteful garden gnomes, a giant praying mantis, the invisible boy, an evil floating poodle, a hulking yeti and other freaky CG fiends.
The action isn’t edge of the seat but it’s often punchy and fast-paced. Set-pieces are also efficiently woven while characters tease repressed traits as the story evolves and the protagonists bond accordingly. But sadly, Goosebumps is let down by a lack of visual flair and plot dexterity, as well as being hampered by some occasionally shaky CGI. Its coy Americana evokes Joe Dante’s The Hole and Gremlins, instilling a sense of nostalgia for fans of 80s films while the score by Danny Elfman sometimes resembles his pokier Beetlejuice numbers. Despite its supernatural elements and some novel creature designs, Goosebumps never strives to be tense or grasping, while jittery visuals make it sometimes feel a little crude: the abominable snowman and werewolf creatures are sketchily rendered.
Director Letterman siphons sufficient drama from the performances and source without squirming in mawkish sentimentality. The cast and characters are genial enough but Jack Black steals the show as Mr Shivers along with Ryan Lee as mega-dweeb Champion. Goosebumps brags a plucky central concept that captures the spirit of the books fittingly despite its first act hiccups. The prospect of a sequel isn’t too disconcerting but a lack of visual finesse, guts and script ingenuity stifles what could have been a spiky family horror had the writing been sharper and a more visionary director (like Tim Burton, who originally intended to produce a film version in 1998) been at the helm. Letterman does a decent job at mining drama and providing the punchy Halloween hokum, and Goosebumps is still a passable hoot, but it requires a darker streak, more radical bite and a grand guignol spectacle to serve as a truer fitting tribute to its source.
by Daniel Goodwin