There was a lot that could have gone wrong in adapting Goosebumps to the big screen.
A Goosebumps movie needs to appeal to the nostalgia of '90s kids (a powerful force, let me tell you), yet pull in younger viewers who may never have read a Goosebumps book. It needs to be scary, but not horrifying enough to scar kids for life. It needs to be fun and self-aware without being too cheesy. And it needs to cram in as many classic Goosebumps monsters as possible from more than 60 books, not including various spin-offs, without losing focus on the smaller ensemble of characters that really matters.
Somehow, Goosebumps pulls it off.
Viewer beware, you're in for a scare.
It begins simply and familiarly enough. After moving to a new, small town with his mom, likable teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) just happens to bump into his cute neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush). But because they're teens and love can never be simple, Hannah's father (Jack Black, playing a caricature of real-life Goosebumps author R.L. Stine) warns him to stay away, lest bad things happen.
So of course he doesn't stay away and bad things do, in fact, happen.
Thinking Hannah is in trouble, Zach enlists the help of the dorky but lovable Champ (Ryan Lee). The two boys sneak into Hannah's house in an attempt to rescue her but instead find shelves full of locked Goosebumps manuscripts. One of these books gets, well, "accidentally" unlocked, setting loose a classic series monster: The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena.
Hijinks ensue, more books are unlocked and the audience is soon on a roller-coaster ride full of ghouls, ghosts and gnomes. However, none of the monsters feel quite as dangerous as Slappy, the ventriloquist doll from Night of the Living Dummy, who serves as a sort of villainous mastermind.
Slappy, like many of the creatures that haunt Goosebumps, kept a lot of children up at night after reading the best-selling books. The movie version is the same, and while it won't frighten most older viewers, especially those who have since graduated to more traditional horror movies, Goosebumps might give the youngest children in its audience nightmares. It is, however, the sort of kid-friendly horror that will have most kids begging for more even as they hide under the covers. Don't worry. There are laughs and lights at the end of the tunnels.
Goosebumps also knows exactly when to take a traditional horror trope and tone it down, making it scary but not too scary. A typical horror movie would have its characters find blood dripping from the ceiling, only to look up and see a monster or mangled corpse waiting for them. How do you make that kid-friendly? Turn the blood into candy from a broken vending machine.
The CG-heavy action is reminiscent of another film that resonates with children of the '90s: Jumanji. Like that movie, the seemingly quiet town in which the movie is set gets torn to shreds by increasingly ridiculous circumstances, with the end goal for our heroes being "suck all these monsters back into the thing they came from." There it was a board game. Here, it's books.
The self-referential nature of Goosebumps' story is what makes this movie more than a simple monster movie.
This isn't a story about werewolves and zombies. It's a story about stories.
Directed by Rob Letterman. PG (scary and intense creature action and images, and some rude humor). 103 mins. In wide release.