Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween **
Dir: Ari Sandel. With: Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Black. 90 mins. Cert: PG
2015’s Goosebumps offered an unexpectedly playful distillation of R.L. Stine’s teen-horror oeuvre, energised and elevated by Jack Black’s turn as a neurotic Stine variant. Presumably held up at that house with the whatsit in its thingamajigs, the actor is a regrettably late arrival in this by-the-book sequel, which leaves us watching kids running around blandly safe suburban spaces that the film’s one rogue element – a walking, talking ventriloquist’s doll named Slappy – can only disrupt so much. Yielding fewer jolts and giggles than its predecessor, the results play more like functionally programmed babysitting software than any work of the imagination: not for the first time in recent years, accompanying adults of a certain age may find themselves pining for the heyday of Joe Dante.
The problem lies not strictly with what’s on screen, which on its own, reduced terms is basically watchable and not unlikable, but in what’s been elided or forgotten about in the rush to duplicate the original’s surprise success: any sustained wit or personality. Incoming director Ari Sandel – a shrugging replacement for the first movie’s Rob Letterman – increasingly displays one tactic, getting the effects team to toss all his constituent elements (Frankengnomes, Gummi Bear monsters, grape-shaped balloons) in the air, then spiralling the camera to see where they land. The second-half revival of Black’s funny Uncle Capote schtick briefly raises the film’s middling game, but also highlights what’s gone missing, and how Sandel tends to lob comedians at the screen rather than passing them workable material.
Ken Jeong at least serves some plot purpose as a holiday-obsessed neighbour with a handy closetful of monster costumes, but Chris Parnell – 30 Rock’s immortal Dr. Leo Spaceman – is among those swallowed up amid the digitised spectacle, and sometime Bridesmaid Wendi McLendon-Covey (in what we can only call “the mom role”) barely gets to play damsel-in-distress. If these old hands summon the odd allowance-worthy moment, repeat exposure only leaves this franchise looking newly anonymous and synthetic. Stine’s writing has set countless youngsters onto literature’s spookier byways, and to reading as pleasure. This frenetic product, by contrast, merely seems a means of hooking ten-year-olds on that very ordinary, ever-busy, rarely scary strain of multiplex horror.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween opens in cinemas nationwide today.