'Goosebumps' is '90s Nostalgia Done Right
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a reboot, remake, re-anything of a nostalgia-heavy franchise is announced, rational, level-headed denizens of the Internet are going to complain about it. You know my thoughts on this, so I’m not going to go into it again. (Short version: Calm the fuck down, people.) Suffice to say, these sorts of movies can be done well, or they can be an opportunistic pile of gloopy studio crap. I am happy to say that Goosebumps—based on the popular series of horror children’s books by R.L. Stine—belongs in the former category.
The #1 smart thing Goosebumps does is to not try to straight-up remake any of the old stories. Instead, it goes meta, with Jack Black playing a black-clad, Stephen King-hating Stine. When Stine writes Goosebumps books, his monsters come to life, so he has to trap them in locked manuscripts. It’s the perfect set-up for the Goosebumpsian “new kid in town” to wander into; thinking that Stine is abusing his young daughter Hannah (a little fucked up, now that you think about it), Zach (Dylen Minnette) and his uberdweeb friend Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak into Stine’s house one night and accidentally set the monsters loose, eventually leading to some PG The Cabin in the Woods action. We don’t get all of Stine’s famous baddies (for example, I don’t see a mutant hamster anywhere, for shame), but we get a good sampling of the big ones, including the Abominable Snowman, evil Lawn Gnomes, and, of course, the ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black).
I was never a Goosebumps girl; being slightly too old for them, I read Stine’s Fear Street books, which were set in high school and therefore made me more sophisticated and mature. (Just go with it.) I still dug Goosebumps-the-movie, though. It’s funny and engaging and reasonably creepy in a PG sort of way. Jack Black kills it. A slate of talented comedy actors pop in and out of the proceedings, Ken Marino, Jillian Bell, Amy Ryan, and Timothy Simons among them. They don’t always have a ton to do, but they’re funny when they do show up. The teenage leads are authentic without being obnoxious. For all you practical effects fans, Slappy is an actual ventriloquist dummy, operated by a ventriloquist who wore a Green Man morph suit so he could be edited out. All this from director Rob Letterman, who brought us a movie where Angelina Jolie is a sexy fish and Martin Scorsese talks about whale poop.
Admittedly, nothing about Goosebumps is particularly groundbreaking. The monsters-come-from-books things has been done before, and the story goes pretty much where you expect it to. Tonally, it’s low-key Goonies minus the cursing. But screw it—it’s a good one for baby horror fans, and adults (Goosebumps fans and non-Goosebumps fans alike) will have a good time as well. In a year where nostalgia projects include Pixels and the forthcoming Jem (I’ll withhold my final opinion until I see the film, of course, but let’s be real: Nothing that we’ve seen so far looks particularly promising), “it’s well-done and enjoyable and exactly zero characters literally win a woman” is high praise indeed.