The year is 1997. The 10 year-old version of me is hunkered down under the bedsheets, torch in hand, delving into the mysterious world of another R. L. Stine horror story from the Goosebumps series. Trips to the school library for the author’s latest book became a regular occurrence, desperate as I was for more spooky tales. I was the macabre sort, you see. By the end of 1997, the author had put out 62 of his horrifying fables, from Say Cheese and Die! and Night of the Living Dummy, to my personal favourite, the one that started it all, Welcome to Dead House. The influence of these books on myself and other young aficionados of the unknown worldwide was immeasurable.
400 million copies sold and a ridiculously ’90s TV series later, Goosebumps has finally found its way into cinematic form. But not as you might expect. This isn’t the page-by-page adaptation of one of the beloved books, as was the case with the TV series. No, this time around, the author himself, R. L. Stine, takes centre stage in a story of monsters, ghouls and young love. Imagine Jumanji, but with better (not great, but entirely serviceable) CGI.
Jack Black plays the tight-lipped and reclusive R.L. Stine, a man with every right to be wary. Not only of the affections of his new neighbour Zach (Dylan Minnette) towards his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) – Zach’s totally into her – but also of his own creations, the creatures of his stories which have come to life, kept locked away between the pages of their books. Kids being kids however, the living terrors don’t stay locked away for long, with Zach and his new friend Champ (the excellent Ryan Lee) unleashing the beasts whilst breaking into Stine’s house to “rescue” Hannah, who they believe to be in peril.
A giant praying mantis, angry garden gnomes, the abominable snow man and more find themselves freed and ready to create havoc under the guidance of the most famous of the Goosebumps baddies, Slappy the Dummy. For those like me who grew up on Stine’s books, it’s an all out nostalgia-fest, though I wouldn’t have said no to more hijinks from Slappy. The storytelling may well be simplistic, yet the characters that inhabit the film are the strongest point. Zach might be a walking, talking, stereotype of a teenage boy, but Champ brings the laughs, and Jack Black’s Stine is just stuck-up enough to be funny without becoming unlikeable. It’s pleasing to see that the actual R.L. Stine was not afraid to be the butt of the joke on several occasions, with Black revelling in the on-screen antics as he so often does.
Regrettably perhaps, it’s all rather straightforward though. The Goosebumps books over the years have seen some excellent (and delightfully absurd) twists, and whilst we do get a twist of sorts here, it’s fairly obvious pretty early on. As is Stine’s character arc; he must face his demons, figuratively and literally. It’s a family film, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t show a few more smarts. It might not be the most clever of films, but it certainly captures the spirit of the books from which it came for the most part. It’s in part creepy, in part spooky, and in part goofy. All without the excessive amounts of cheese that the series gave us.
Viewer, Beware! You’re In For A Scare!
Rating (out of 5):