#31DaysOfHorror — October 16

This October, for the second year in a row, I’ll be reviewing one horror movie each day! Respected classics, trashy and forgotten B-movies, both new frights and old… I love ’em all. Well, some of them I’ll probably hate. We’ll see.

The Plot

Zach and his mom are still struggling to cope with the recent death of his father. But they’ve just moved to a new town, and Zach is hopeful that this’ll be a great new chance to start over. But what’s going on with the mysterious man next door, who already doesn’t seem to like Zach? And is his pretty daughter Hannah in trouble?

One night, Zach and his new friend Champ sneak over to the house to see if Hannah’s okay. They find a mysterious shelf full of locked Goosebumps books, and when they open one using key they find nearby, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena springs to life and begins to rampage through town! As Zach and his friends chase after the yeti and try to return him to his book, a certain evil ventriloquist dummy also escapes, and he begins to unleash all of RL Stine’s classic monsters on the town one by one…

It’s up to Zach and his friends to find a way to get the villains to go back to their prisons of paper and ink before the whole town is destroyed!

My Review

This girl and I have a lot in common.

I’ve been waiting for a Goosebumps movie since about 1995, when my mother and I first checked Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes out of the library to see if I’d like these books I’d seen all my friends reading. I quickly became obsessed with the series, eventually collecting all 62 titles in the original Goosebumps line, in addition to a number of spinoffs and various pieces of merchandise. There’s a home video of me on Christmas morning at six years old, unwrapping a book and shrieking, “Calling All Creeps!!!!” in a way that would make a certain meme star proud. I’ve re-read the whole series multiple times, most recently six or seven years ago when I was home from college for a summer and found the Rubbermaid full of books in my parents’ basement. So, to say I’m a fan is an understatement.

Sadly, even though it’s a perfectly well-made horror/comedy film for kids, the long-awaited Goosebumps movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Now I finally get why purist comic-book fanboys get so up-in-arms about minor details.

Their faces pretty much match my reaction, hoping my childhood isn’t about to go up in flames.

Before I explain why, though, first: the good stuff. This movie is funny. Like, really funny. The jokes aren’t as Goosebumps-specific as I would have liked, which I’ll get to in a bit, but almost all of them land perfectly. I laughed out loud six or seven times, which I don’t often do, and I spent most of the movie staring at the screen with a big grin on my face… and not just because I was seeing some of my favorite childhood memories playing out on the big screen. Because really, I wasn’t. …More on that in a minute.

Goosebumps is a bit long, clocking in just under two hours, but I liked that it took its time ramping itself up to the zany action. This gives us plenty of chances to grow to like the characters, and I certainly did like them. It’s the most agreeable cast of young actors I’ve seen in quite a while. Dylan Minnette is a young actor I’ve really enjoyed watching over the years, from his role as Jack’s son in the final season of LOST, to his critical co-starring spot on the criminally underrated one-season TV show Awake, to his supporting roles in great movies like Let Me In and Prisoners. Here, he displays a fantastic comic deadpan that shows great promise for funny roles to come. While he’s often the straight man in the movie’s many comedic setpieces — opposite the also-great Ryan Lee as the annoying-yet-lovable friend Champ and the reliable Jillian Bell as Zach’s quirky-yet-lovable Aunt Lorraine — Minnette gets to fire off some great punchlines, Zach ultimately functioning as the witty, gently-sarcastic teen I used to wish I could be.

Goosebumps succeeds on the strength of its cast.

Jack Black’s turn as real-life Goosebumps author RL Stine is also a highlight of the film. He’s completely over-the-top, camping it up with some kind of bizarre over-enunciated Hollywood accent that somehow completely works despite not resembling the speaking voice of any person who ever lived. He also provides the speaking voice for Slappy the evil dummy and the invisible boy, which adds a great dimension to the film, considering the villains are meant to be twisted creations of Stine’s unconscious.

But, wait. What Goosebumps book had an invisible boy as its villain? Let’s Get Invisible! was about a bunch of kids discovering a mirror in their attic that made them invisible, and it turned out their evil reflections were taking over their lives — the villains were very visible. That was the whole point. And in My Best Friend Is Invisible, the invisible boy is a friendly human in a world of aliens. So, decidedly not evil. Was there maybe a Give Yourself Goosebumps or a Goosebumps Series 2000 about an evil invisible boy? Possibly, but Google isn’t giving me much help. Sure, the Invisible Boy in the movie is fun, but… is he really a Goosebumps villain?

How about the giant praying mantis that acts as one of the main antagonists in the film? Slappy is the mastermind, but the giant praying mantis causes the majority of the destruction. The cover of A Shocker On Shock Street is one of the more iconic Goosebumps covers, but fans of the book know that the giant praying mantis in the novel is actually an android, not a real, organic mantis like the one in the movie.

I appreciate the faithful recreation of the pose from the cover, but come on…

You have terrifying canines in your franchise like the titular Barking Ghost, but instead we get a long sequence where Aunt Lorraine is attacked by the evil poodle from the cover of Please Don’t Feed the Vampire. Who went to see Goosebumps hoping against all hope that they’d see the poodle from Please Don’t Feed the Vampire come to life?

That brings me to my point. Goosebumps completely fails as a 90s nostalgia trip. Monster Blood gets a shoutout, but there’s no actual Monster Blood to be seen in the movie. And maybe that’s fine — maybe there are kids reading these books today who are much more familiar with Attack of the Graveyard Ghouls than they are with The Haunted Mask. Why include classic Goosebumps plot devices like the camera from from Say Cheese — and Die! when you can have a long take of evil toy robots entering a school, which as near as I can tell are supposed to be the ones seen in the background of the cover of Give Yourself Goosebumps #20 — Toy Terror: Batteries Included?

Choosing Goosebumps monsters I’m not as familiar with isn’t the only part of this complaint. It’s the fact that, in just about every case, the choices of what to include were the most generic monsters possible. Those graveyard ghouls are pretty cliché zombies, and they’re the antagonists during of one of the big action setpieces. During the climax of the film, when “all” of the RL Stine monsters converge on the school at the same time, the majority of the screen time is given to a generic evil clown, who I guess comes from Give Yourself Goosebumps Power Play Special Edition 3: Trapped in the Circus of Fear. (The spinoff titles got truly absurd.) But the majority of the crowd shots are too blurry, too dimly lit to make out the other monsters. We just get a generic werewolf, a giant praying mantis, generic zombies, a generic evil clown, etc.

And here’s the thing that really gets me. The other monsters are apparently there! Promo shots were released of someone wearing The Haunted Mask, as well as someone who’s clearly meant to be the executioner from A Night at Terror Tower. Before release, we saw images of one of the Jack-o-lantern aliens from Attack of the Jack-o-lanterns, and even of an evil gypsy woman who I guess came from Chicken, Chicken, one of my favorites because of how silly it was. But where were these characters in the film? I sure missed them.

So, this is all to say… where Goosebumps truly falls flat, for me as a fan of the series, is that it doesn’t depend whatsoever on these actually being Goosebumps characters that have come to life. The Goosebumps books exist in this universe, and Champ is even a huge fan of the series. But returning the monsters to their respective books doesn’t require any knowledge whatsoever of their various weaknesses; instead, you just have to open their book near them. So no one needs any specialized knowledge whatsoever — one of the biggest hallmarks of fandom. Goosebumps fails to recognize that its existing fanbase — that any existing fanbase — wants to see its knowledge of trivia justified.

For example… We see there’s a cuckoo clock in RL Stine’s basement. Champ has read every Goosebumps book multiple times. When they accidentally release the abominable snowman of Pasadena, and everyone desperately wishes for some way to turn back time and undo what they’ve just done, why doesn’t it occur to anyone to go into the basement and turn the bird’s head around to reverse time? When Zach goes to reach for something beneath the sink, why isn’t he attacked by the evil sponge from It Came From Beneath the Sink? Where is the damned Say Cheese — And Die! camera?! For a plot that so often requires nothing more than staying ahead of the approaching villains, a camera that can tell the future would have been super-useful!

I feel a little silly for wishing this movie had catered more to my specific Goosebumps-related interests. But now I totally get why comic book fans go crazy over the slightest missed opportunity, the slightest alteration that deviates from their beloved source material. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are perfectly fine movies, but, comic fanboys feel, they could have been so much better! Sadly, I feel the same way about Goosebumps. They should’ve stuck to villains from the original 62 books, and they should have made the plots of those books, and the characterizations of those villains, actually matter.

Well, at least it was funny?