I went through a rather intense Goosebumps phase when I was in year five or six at primary school (1996-7), as did many my age. I liked the feeling that I was reading something slightly forbidden, in that it was a little unpleasant. Mostly though, I liked the bobbly book covers. The original series of books and the subsequent TV series (I had A Night in Terror Tower on VHS) hold a lot of nostalgia for me. Recently, due to the newest spin-off set of books, the Goosebumps: HorrorLand series which started in 2008, R. L. Stine has had another swell of popularity.
I was delighted yet also wary when I heard there was going to be a Goosebumps movie, and for the most part it was the delighted side of me which was rewarded at the cinema this week (see, sometimes it pays to be positive).
For me, the time it takes for the main selling point of the film to actually happen within the narrative (i.e. Stine’s creations escaping from their bookish prisons) can give an indication of the writer’s priorities. An awful lot of time was spent establishing a variety of main and supporting characters, as well as the setting of the story and this was very refreshing for a modern children’s film. The scene was set with loving care and attention, rather than plunging into the action to keep impatient viewers happy.
Jack Black used just the right amount of melodrama in his performance, portraying a grumpy-old-man-next-door-meets-overprotective-dad version of R. L. Stine, who is quick to lose his temper if mentioned in the same sentence as Stephen King (“… Let me tell you something about Steve King…”). Black’s real achievement, however, was as the chillingly maniacal voice of Slappy the (gulp) Dummy.
All three younger leads (Dylan Minnette as Zach, Odeya Rush as Hannah and Ryan Lee as Champ) gave thoughtful performances and, most importantly, were not grating in any way. They also helped to pull of many of the script’s genuinely funny moments, often arising from the ‘teenage’ style tendency to either underplay or overplay a specific dramatic moment.] There’s also some well observed comedy from Aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) and an over-zealous police woman in training (Amanda Lund).
The overwhelming volume of monsters, when they do come, could be a bit much for more easily alarmed PG viewers, though there is no bloodshed (well, a few cuts and bruises) and the film seems to go out of its way to show that the human fallout is minimal. The special effects are impressive, in that money, time and most importantly care has gone into making the strange assortment of beasts and ghouls featured unquestionably ‘real’.
However, it may be that there were different books in the US which were popular than in the UK, or even just among my social book-sharing circle, or that the filmmakers wanted to reference some of the more recent books, but I didn’t feel I knew who all the ‘baddies’ were. Obviously, the ‘unleashing of monsters’ story motif means that some of the more, let’s say, conceptual books I was familiar with, like Piano Lessons Can be Murder, or Be Careful What you Wish For, were never really likely to get prime space in the narrative. There is something for every Goosebumps fan, though I would have been happier with an even higher hit-rating, content to spend the entirety of the film nerdily picking out references to obscure titles. I especially wanted the funfair, which is planted in the introductory stages and does feature in the finale, to magically transform into HorrorLand (One Day at HorrorLand being my ultimate personal favourite).
There are a handful of creatures which become the main focus; Slappy is really the main antagonist, accompanied by sinister figures such as Murder the Clown, the giant praying mantis from The Shocker on Shock Street (included I imagine for the sense of spectacle), the Werewolf of Fever Swamp and, of course, the Lawn Gnomes. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena also provides an initial set-piece.
The device which forms the film’s denouncement is nothing new – see my article on ‘Stories about Stories’. As it progresses, Goosebumps becomes very much like Inkheart (2008) meets Jumanji (1995), and almost seems to be poking fun at just how ‘rushed’ and mass-produced the process of writing and churning out Goosebumps books actually became/still is.
Still, at the end you have genuine ‘feels’ for the characters, all of whom are likeable. You’ve also had a few laughs and feel you’ve watched a film exhibiting spectacle rather than horror (unless you have clown fear). Goosebumps will withstand repeat viewings and, crucially, it will make a good basis for my next Halloween party. I don’t know if it will be fast and furious enough for some ‘modern’ young audiences, or if the real fans will be us late-twenty somethings who just want to give themselves Goosebumps all over again.