R.L. Stine's horror-themed children's books have been such bestsellers these past decades that a movie version was perhaps inevitable; the problem, one assumes, would have been deciding which of these standalone texts to adapt. Sony's new Goosebumps plumps for the postmodern route, mashing up a dozen or so of the books' monsters, but making Stine himself - rather than spooks, zombies or haunted houses - its organising principle: a not uninspired idea, given a broadly functional treatment by director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) and his small committee of screenwriters. So it is we find hunky teen hero Zack (Dylan Minnette, destined to play the young Captain America at some point) moving to Everytown, USA with his single mom (Amy Ryan, forever underused) and, in his pursuit of the girl next door, coming into near-immediate conflict with her father, a Mephistophelian-looking, black-clad recluse going under the name of Mr. Shivers, and incarnated by Jack Black. The two will have to work together, however, after a series of unfortunate events unleash physical representations of the monsters Shivers - by which the film means Stine - has previously contained within his bestselling fictions, starting with the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and working through to the Werewolf of Fever Swamp. At which point Letterman hands the job of direction over to his effects team - for however physical these manifestations are meant to be, onscreen they are, almost without exception, virtual phenomena - and hopes that his audience won't be so old as to remember 1995's Jumanji, or the episode of The Simpsons that referenced Jumanji.
Anybody who has will recognise not just the set-up (small town falls under threat from the kind of pixellated menagerie only possible in the digital era) but the character arcs (antagonism shading to grudging respect as the town is saved from danger), the jovial, insistently PG tone, even some of the jollifying music cues. Not that Goosebumps isn't fun. Black - as School of Rock proved - is always good value when arching an eyebrow and either smartmouthing or putting the wind up kids; when the runaround pauses, the camera will often alight on other funny faces, seizing a moment. Jillian Bell raises regular chuckles as Ryan's sister, while Veep's Timothy Simons livens up a throwaway part as the local lawman. There's a certain enjoyment to be derived from the sheer variety of ghouls plaguing this particular Main Street, too: at an early script meeting, it was clearly decided to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, and then to install an army of malevolent garden gnomes in that. It is, though, really no more than a predictable, carefully managed sort of fun, devoid of the true mischief a Sam Raimi or Joe Dante (whose fondly remembered TV series Eerie, Indiana would be another precursor) might have lent the project; you suspect those directors would have put a swift red pen through the entirely pat development that sees Stine literally having to confront his demons to move on. In the end, this Goosebumps emerges as the kind of bland corporate entertainment that typifies an age where cinemas are required to keep their lights on during the main feature for safety reasons. Nobody's going to be asking for their money back, but equally, you'll know what you're getting from the get-go; it'll do as a middling matinee, but at every stage of its conception and execution, it's been fine-tuned not to keep anybody awake at night, to haunt no dreams at all.
(MovieMail, February 2016)
Goosebumps is available on DVD through Sony; a sequel, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, opens this Friday.