I’ll confess that I spend an unconscionable amount of time wondering about the right age at which to introduce my child to horror movies. Of course, even the fact that I struggle with this probably says something about the times we live in; when I discovered Psycho and The Shining on TV in the ’80s at the age of 9, neither of my parents batted an eyelash, and pretty much the same held true for most of the other kids I knew. So, the challenge of making a respectable kid-friendly horror flick — one where the scares are good-natured, but not entirely defanged — is certainly not to be underestimated.
The first Goosebumps movie, adapted liberally from author R.L. Stine’s immensely popular kid-lit series, felt like a minor magic trick in that regard. It had wit, speed, and an imaginative spirit, throwing all sorts of rampaging, creatively designed ghouls at us. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween can’t quite make the same claim. It replicates the template and the atmosphere of the original, but it lacks invention and emotional investment.
But the pieces seem to be there, at first. The town of Wardenclyffe, New York, is a promisingly creepy little hamlet. The houses are big and old, the trees are craggy, and electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla once had a lab there, as well as an experimental wireless transmission tower which still looms over the town. (By the way, there was once a real Tesla-built Wardenclyffe Tower, since demolished, in Shoreham, New York.) Oh, and R.L. Stine (a major character in the first film, played by Jack Black, who briefly reprises the role this time) apparently once lived in Wardenclyffe many years ago, and wrote an unfinished novel, which he then accidentally left inside a big crate. Two dorky teenage pals, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris) chance upon the crate when they attempt to clean out Stine’s abandoned house. Then they accidentally bring Stine’s signature villain, the pissy, petulant ventriloquist’s dummy Slappy, to life.
Slappy (also voiced by Black), who engineered much of the havoc in the first film, wants a family of his own, and is determined to get it. Attempting to ingratiate himself, he tells the kids he can make all their wishes come true, which for now just involves pantsing the local bully and then clothes-lining him with a garden hose. Most of the movie involves Sonny, Sam, and Sonny’s sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) attempting to stop the possessed doll from his nefarious aims. Possessed with a magic incantation that can bring anything to life, Slappy wants to transform the town into a hellscape of raging Halloween lawn displays, all in service to him. He not only wants his own family, he wants his own town.
Like I said: promising. This all seems like a great setup to fill the screen with visual humor and creepy-crawly creatures, much as the first film did. In that one, a lot of the monsters that came to life were characters from Stine’s books; this time around … well, who knows? We don’t spend much time with the creatures, who mostly seem anonymous — save maybe for a giant spider made out of purple balloons, which looks great but doesn’t wind up doing much. The chaos isn’t chaotic enough, and the monsters not particularly monstrous. Meanwhile, Slappy’s wise-ass remarks don’t land the way they did before.
The movie feels undercooked on every level. True, it’s all meant to be slight and charming and inoffensive — but there’s a way to make this sort of thing work, and Goosebumps 2 doesn’t seem particularly interested in trying to find it. The occasional exception merely serves to highlight the general sense of blah-ness: One scene, involving a bowl of gummy bears that have suddenly been rendered sentient and vicious, demonstrates exactly the kind of ingenuity the rest of the film lacks. A later scene where a human character is turned by Slappy into a ventriloquist’s-dummy version of himself is just creepy enough to genuinely unnerve us. At moments like these, Goosebumps 2 briefly provides a glimpse of the movie it should have been all along. The finale promises a sequel; let’s hope they get it right next time.