So, here’s the thing: I know nothing of Goosebumps. I mean, I know about it from a distance — I know they’re a prolific series of kid’s novels written by R.L. Stine, and they each focus on some sort of scary theme. But I’ve yet to read any of them and, at 43 years old, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Yet long ago, my son decided that Halloween was his favorite time of year (because really, costumes and candy — he has a valid point). So I figured that, despite his relatively young six years of age, it might be a good time to slooooowly introduce him to scary movies. I started with 2015’s Goosebumps, and once he came to grips with the concept of horror and comedy joining forces, he had a grand old time and watched it repeatedly.
So, last week at his request, I took him to Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. For those who need to know, the first Goosebumps is a clever meta-storytelling, wherein R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black, who seems to be recreating his career quite capably with children’s fare) still writes the Goosebumps series, but the characters from his books are able to come to life if the original manuscript is unlocked with a magical key. The most wicked of them all is Slappy, the haunted ventriloquist dummy, who sees Stine as a weird sort of father-figure, and unleashes all the books’ monsters. Goosebumps 2 picks up a few years later, in the town of Wardenclyffe, NY, supposedly where Stine was born (he’s actually from Columbus, OH, but no one would believe that anything interesting could happen there). Once again, a hapless youngster stumbles upon one of Stine’s books, and once again the malevolent Slappy is released. This time, though, it’s an unfinished manuscript, which grants Slappy all sort of ways that he can manipulate reality and create monsters. Throw in the fact that Wardenclyffe is home to a functioning Tesla tower (just roll with it, OK?) that amplifies Slappy’s power, and soon every Halloween costume and decoration is coming to life, wreaking havoc on the poor hapless town.
It’s a fun enough movie, though it never quite hits the levels of its predecessor. Its three main leads — Jeremy Ray Taylor as teenage nerd Sonny, Caleel Harris as his buddy and comrade-in-arms, and Madison Iseman as Sarah, Sonny’s sister, all do competent work, yelling and screaming and running their way through the movie. Iseman appears to be the strongest actor of the three, but aside from a throwaway plot point about a dipshit boyfriend and a college essay, she’s mostly relegated to the aforementioned screaming and yelling and running. Wendy McLendon-Covey (Bridesmaids) has a thankless role as their mom, and Ken Jeong is there as their weird, Halloween-enthusiast neighbor. There are a couple of bullies there to provide some additional antagonism, and that’s about it.
Perhaps that’s its biggest problem — Jack Black isn’t there. Well, he is there, but only barely. He shows up in the final third of the film in sporadic bursts, and only encounters the remaining cast in the final ten or so minutes, and the film is weaker for it. Black was terrific in the first film and created a great foil for the younger actors. A lot of people — myself included — grew weary of Black’s manic shtick, but he’s both refined it and toned it down in recent years and it works well in movies targeted at younger audiences. Without him to keep the film steady, Haunted Halloween never really gains the same edge that the first one did.
That’s OK though, because the film’s momentum keeps it afloat, even if it never truly dazzles. The monsters are ubiquitous and creative, though not really scary. Like my son Wee-K described them in the first one, they’re “more funny scary than scary scary.” I mean, how terrified can we be of a giant purple spider that’s made out of balloons (my kid’s favorite part and NO, we are not going to buy a thousand balloons to make a giant spider, son, no matter how late you promise to let me sleep in on weekends). The ending is oddly abrupt, giving it a clear chance at another sequel, but doing so at the sacrifice of a real sense of resolution. But the ride it takes you on before that is decent enough. If you’re trying to entertain a younger kid? That’s probably good enough.