“Kids books help you go to sleep, these books keep you up at night,” Ryan Lee’s anxiety-ridden sidekick, Champ, argues a quarter of the way through Goosebumps. How true: Part of the fun of R.L. Stine’s young adult horror series was always turning each page in the darkness of your bedroom, preferably with the aide of a Goosebumps-stamped reading light you ordered from a Scholastic Books catalogue at school. Sometimes the stories were legitimately shocking (see: My Hairiest Adventure), but more often than not, they were fairly predictable. That didn’t matter, though, because confirming your own suspicions was just as enjoyable and addicting. It’s one reason why some faithful readers lasted throughout the author’s original 62-book run, from 1992’s Welcome to Dead House to 1997’s Monster Blood IV. Yes, he wrote three sequels to Monster Blood.
But Stine also wrote about haunted masks, limber mummies, ghosts next door, treacherous theme parks, walking scarecrows, living dummies, gloomy cuckoo clocks, hungry blobs, angry lawn gnomes, teenage werewolves, and one abominable snowman who hailed from the sunny confines of Pasadena, California. Screenwriter Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) must have spent many long nights poring through each of those books’ pages because they’re all walking around his feature film adaptation of the popular series. His story closely follows Stine’s own beats by having us follow Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette), a New York City teenager who’s just moved to the small town of Madison, Delware. Naturally, everything is very Snoozeville USA until he meets his strange neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), whose father turns out to be author R.L. Stine (Jack Black).
From there, the film takes a rather meta twist, where everyone recognizes the iconic author and his equally iconic books, which all come to life when Zach and his friend Champ foolishly open one of them while stumbling through Stine’s mysterious library. Similar to Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji, the ghoulish creations step into our cynical world (via palpable FX), leaving the town of Madison in the hands of three bewildered teens and one snotty writer, who are all tasked to trap them back into fiction. Now, on paper, that story might not sound like such a clever idea, but Lemke handles the proceedings with admirable execution, finding a perfect balance between snark and ingenuity. Never once does the film pierce its proverbial tongue through its own cheek, and while a few moments ooze a tad too saccharine, they’re typically cut with ounces of genuine heart.
That heart beats fast thanks to the contagious chemistry shared between the film’s four principal leads: Minnette is a suitable hero, charming with bouts of sarcasm and wit; Rush is a knowledgable equivalent, hypnotizing with beauty and determination; Lee is a comical counterpart, “born with the gift of fear”; and Black is the aggravated mentor, screaming with impatience and intolerance. Together, they all bounce off one another with purpose and agility, providing the essential laughs and screams in each carefully designed set piece, whether it’s sliding across a hockey rink to avoid an angry abominable snowman or wheeling a cart away from an equally bothered werewolf. It’s a blast watching them clumsily solve each and every predicament and there’s this tangible bond that speaks to their performances and Lemke’s writing.
Director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels) adds a majestic touch with sweeping shots and careful staging, which makes Goosebumps more of a thrill ride than a horror show. Once the books start opening and things go bump in the night, there’s little time to breathe as the action moves from one setting to the next. Yet there are an allotment of tranquil scenes, highlighted by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Road), such as an early moment between Minnette and Rush at a forested, abandoned theme park. The two climb up a rusty ferris wheel that lights up the sky in a beatific style that wouldn’t necessarily be tempted for a traditional kid’s film. Of course, it also helps that the whole thing’s given some added magic by the great Danny Elfman, who continues his recent streak of subtle magnificence (see: this year’s The End of the Tour).
Ultimately, Goosebumps proves to be a surprising success. Letterman and Lemke have designed not only a faithful adaptation but one that elevates the source material, simply by celebrating what made the books so beloved in the first place — The monsters! The mystique! The wonder! — while also wrenching out the fluff with a touch of self awareness. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s exciting, and it’ll remind you why you ever spent hours of your childhood dreaming about what might dwell in the basement or beneath the sink. As such, there’s a cozy nostalgic middle to the film, but it’s also smart and enjoyable enough to seduce the millennials who likely recall the series for its hit or miss television show. If anything, Goosebumps will serve as an ideal followup for Hocus Pocus, or Ernest Scared Stupid, or Monster Squad in future Halloween marathons. You know, for kids.