I have a 7-year-old daughter. She’s amazing (full disclosure: i am biased). Super smart. Super funny. And a voracious consumer of the written word. I’ve slowly been introducing horror to her over the years with Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl (yes, his stories are often horrific), and even the first Harry Potter book with its unicorn blood, troll, ghosts, and two-faced professor. I’ve done the same with films. She’s seen Gremlins, Coraline, ParaNorman, and Monster House (among others). When I saw Goosebumps (the major motion picture, not the books, tv show, or the straight-to-video movies) show up on Netflix, I was pretty excited. I could watch something with the whole family while exposing my kid to more horror. It was win-win! So, here’s my review written from that perspective – a dad exposing his kid to horror. (the ideal outcome of which is that my girl becomes a horror fan and we have at least that to connect on during her inevitable embarrassed-by-her-parents teen years)
Zack and his mom move to a small town in Delaware where she will be the new assistant principal at his high school. He’s not happy about it. Dad recently died and Zack’s having a hard enough time as it is. Their new neighbors turn out to be interesting. The girl, Hannah, is cute, sarcastic and Zack’s age. Her dad is a terrible grump who has a decided “stay away from my daughter” bent. Hannah, however, has a “sneak out to show Zack the abandoned carnival in the woods” bent. At school, Zack meets Champ, a big ol’ girl-crazy dork. When Zack sees what he suspects is the neighbor guy killing/harming Hannah, he lures Champ to help him investigate with the promise of meeting a girl. The two break into the neighbor’s house and stumble upon a cache of R. L. Stine “Goosebumps” manuscripts. Like, all of them. And each one is locked. Luckily, the key is sitting a few feet away and their sense of urgency about finding the possibly murdered Hannah is lax at best. So they unlock one just as Hannah shows up unharmed. It turns out that her dad is none other than R. L. Stine and the manuscripts magically imprison real-life versions of his spooky creations! The unlocked book releases the abominable snowman and the teens hightail it outta there. Inexplicably, another book spontaneously unlocks and releases Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy with a “let all the horrors out of the books to destroy Stine/the town” bent. The teens must join forces with Stine to save the town.
Let me get the bad stuff out of the way first. There are some glaring plot holes in this film. Slappy’s escape from the locked book is a mystery. Not in the “oooh, mysterious!” sense, but in the “why the hell did that book unlock by itself and why did it happen immediately after the film established that the books are locked to keep in the baddies?” sense. And that’s just one example. Some dubious plot devices are explained away as references to the books, but it makes for an a bit of an insulting experience for the audience. I’m not sure if the holes weren’t addressed because the filmmakers figured it’s a kids’ movie and they probably won’t notice or if they just didn’t care. (or maybe studio interference in editing?) Either way, it’s poor filmmaking. The story has it’s problems as well. As soon as it was revealed (in the trailer for the film) that Jack Black’s grumpy neighbor character is actually R. L. Stine, I immediately thought of the solution to the supernatural plague unleashed on the city. And it ended up being the one the characters eventually came around to. Maybe the filmmakers are relying on the naivety of their young viewers here as well. Stine’s god-like powers make for some low stakes and a few “why doesn’t he just…” moments. Finally (for this complaints section anyway), the digital effects are really, really bad. Now for the good stuff. My kid had a lot of fun watching this film. She squealed and laughed and tried to convince herself that she wasn’t scared (out loud: “werewolves aren’t scary, they’re cute”) at a few points. The predictability of the story allowed me to prepare her for upcoming twists or to allay her fears about the fates of characters. And despite all of its flaws (and Black’s weird accent), it was a pretty fun family experience. I got to see some zombies, werewolves, crypto-creatures, killer plants, giant bugs, evil clowns, aliens, and a whole host of other scary things with my kiddo. Thus pushing that horror exposure meter (metaphorical) a little bit closer to John Carpenter’s The Thing (obviously, one of the ultimate goals).
The Final Cut: Goosebumps is a very flawed film that manages to be a fun family experience nonetheless. Just don’t think too hard on it.