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Things That Go Bump in the Night

Columbia Pictures
 103 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Rob Letterman 
Starring: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush

One of the lesser known but beloved by those who have seen it horror cult classics is 1987’s The Monster Squad, in which all the classic Universal monsters descend upon one small town. A group of schoolboys wind up fending off Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf-Man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, all in less than 90 minutes and all on a budget of seemingly less than 90 dollars.


Somehow, I get the feeling that R. L. Stine or one of the executives at Columbia Pictures to whom Stine sold the film rights to his highly popular children’s horror story series Goosebumps had the exact same idea. Because, although the protagonists in the Goosebumps movie are a bit older, they wind up tangling with many of Stine’s classic villains, including an abominable snowman, a giant praying mantis, sinister yard gnomes, and his arch-villain, a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy named Slappy. Fortunately, this time around, the teenagers have some help from the most expert possible source, R. L. Stine himself, as played by Jack Black.


Goosebumps is a high concept film, but for audiences that are willing to accept the concept, it plays rather well. It seems that when Stine the author creates his creatures, he literally creates them; they have the ability to spring to life and emerge from the printed page, thanks to the enchanted typewriter he uses. And, once free, they can only be recaptured by bringing them back in close proximity from their original bibliographic home. To keep humanity from being overrun by ghosts and ghouls, Stine keeps them locked up in the office in his home, and he tries to fly under the radar by keeping a low profile and moving around frequently.


As Goosebumps begins, Stine is living in the small town of Madison, DE, raising his home schooled teenage daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). Both Stine and Hannah get noticed by their new neighbor, Zach (Dylan Minnette), another new arrival in Madison. Zach is also lonely, an outsider whose mother (Amy Ryan) is the new assistant principal at his high school. He finds Hannah to be a kindred spirit and starts finding ways to sneak out with her, until Stine learns about the budding romance and puts an end to it. Undeterred, Zach finds a way into Hannah’s home, where he accidentally unleashes one of the creatures, the abominable snowman.


Events begin spiraling from that point on, like, well, a snowball going downhill. More creatures escape, and the town is soon awash in CGI monsters that go on a rampage. Zach, Hannah, and his geeky friend Champ (Ryan Lee) try to stop the monsters, with an assist from Stine himself, who gradually works up the courage to take leave his home and take them on. To make matters worse, the creatures are under the direction of Slappy (also voiced by Black), who has burned all Stine’s original manuscripts so that he and the other creatures seemingly cannot be recaptured.


While the creatures in the film version of Goosebumps are quite faithful to their literary counterparts, the real strength of the movie is how well director Rob Letterman and his screenwriters capture the spirit of the books as well. Much like Stine’s books, the monsters in Goosebumps are spooky without being really terrifying. The film never gives the impression that any characters are in actual danger. Instead, the only really damage caused is to the various buildings and cars that get damaged.


Obviously, with titles like The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, author Stine has a lot of fun with his young readers, and the film picks up on that playful attitude as well. The showdown between the teens and the snowman, one of the few sequences shown at any length, fittingly takes place at an ice skating rink, where teens on a Zamboni prove more than a match for an angry Yeti. And, the highlight set piece is the encounter with the definitely unfriendly yard gnomes, who have quite an affinity for knife throwing.


Surprisingly (to me at least), Goosebumps actually has a heart to it as well. Quite honestly, if the script removed all the creatures and monsters and just concentrated on the lead characters, the movie could have been a fairly good teen romance. Jack Black is low key in his role, once he gets past his stern father façade, and the explanation of how he started writing and why he chose his particular subject matter will resonate with younger viewers. Viewers will also enjoy the romance between Zach and Hannah, especially a scene set at an abandoned amusement park where the two climb to the top of the Ferris Wheel, not a courting method recommended for those over high school age.


Although the lead characters are quite appealing, some of the supporting cast is poorly used. Amy Ryan is reduced to the non-entity role of clueless mother, while comic Jillian Bell, who plays Ryan’s sister, fares even worse as the man-crazed excuse for comic relief in the movie. Her character is so annoying that I was actively hoping she would encounter one of the creatures on the loose in the movie.


Eventually, Goosebumps does get out of control, with too many monsters on the loose and a finale in which the heroes have to try to lure the monsters all in one location to deal with them. The more CGI that director Letterman employs, the less effective it beomes, and the net effect is somewhat akin to watching an old-fashioned Western cattle drive with the world’s ugliest and most bizarre herd of cattle.


Goosebumps can be forgiven to a certain extent for its tendency towards excess. The film is a kid’s movie, after all, and one based on source material that is quite excessive. But it manages to tap into the same spirit that made films like Goonies enduring hits for an earlier generation of youngsters. Box office success naturally breeds sequels, and the script leaves the door open for the film makers to simply reshuffle and re-release the various creatures from the first movie. If so, here’s hoping that the same band of monster hunters are on hand to do battle with them a second time around.

Read other reviews of  Goosebumps:


Goosebumps (2015) on IMDb