I’m not particularly well versed in R.L. Stine’s immensely popular Goosebumps books (my son isn’t old enough for them yet, so I’m biding my time), but as far as I can tell, their appeal comes from a genuinely impressive balancing act. How does one walk this line between kid-friendly trifle and genuinely creepy schlock-fest, satisfying young readers’ burgeoning taste for the macabre while keeping things harmless and fun? What’s more, Stine’s books aren’t elaborate tomes like the Harry Potter series (which, admittedly, have their own absorbing appeal). He seems to do it all with such a light, disposable touch. The movie version of Goosebumps replicates that balancing act. It’s a cheerful, nasty delight.
The setup is a familiar one; you’ve seen it in just about every other tween-friendly movie or book or TV show. Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his recently widowed mom (Amy Ryan) are relocating to Madison, Delaware — the middle of nowhere, as far as he’s concerned — so she can be vice-principal of the local high school. Zach runs afoul of their menacing, mysterious neighbor (Jack Black) after he befriends the man’s beautiful, sassy daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush). Concerned that Hannah might be in danger, Zach sneaks into their house one night with his newfound nerdy school pal, Champ (perpetually cry-faced Ryan Lee). After walking through a basement littered with bear traps and cobwebs, they come upon a wall of manuscripts for Goosebumps stories, each one locked. When they accidentally unlock one of the books, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena steps out of its pages and into their world, cutting a wide swath of destruction through their own rinky-dink town.
It turns out Hannah’s dad is the elusive R.L. Stine himself, and that the creatures he dreamed up in his stories became real somewhere along the way. They’re kept under lock and key in the books … or at least they were. Another volume opens, and out steps the eerie Slappy, “a ventriloquist’s dummy with a Napoleonic complex,” who then proceeds to unleash the creatures from all the other stories. Soon Madison, Delaware, is overrun by graveyard ghouls, indestructible lawn gnomes, a giant praying mantis, Annihilator 3000 robots, mutant plants, and more, and the unhinged mayhem spins further out of control. Fans of the Goosebumps series will probably enjoy picking out their favorites from the mad bunch — the film is generous with its monster quotient.
What makes the movie, though, is its wit and speed, and the attention given to even the most basic character exchanges. Zach and his mom have easygoing, snarky interactions, but we also see the boy retire to his room every night to watch videos of his dead father; that in turn lends the banter with Mom real emotional context. (The film doesn’t dwell on such details, but their deployment never feels careless.) Meanwhile, Black perfectly conveys the story’s over-the-top hysterics while keeping things appropriately tongue-in-cheek, and he knows his way around a gag, verbal and otherwise. The best jokes here are the fastest ones, and they often come as our heroes run from or fight some ghastly werewolf or alien or zombie or whatever. (“Why couldn’t you have written about rainbows and unicorns?!” “Because that doesn’t sell 400 million copies!” “Domestic?” “No! Worldwide! Still very impressive! Shut up!”)
The conceit behind Goosebumps — books/games/movies open up and the beasts inside them wreak havoc on our world — isn’t exactly new, and it could easily become tiresome or cloying. But the movie never pauses long enough to let us get bored or annoyed. It has the feel of a story being spun before our very eyes — fast, funny, and, yes, even frightening.