Young audiences are in for an early lesson in disappointing cinematic literary adaptations with “Goosebumps.” This first big-screen spin on R.L. Stine’s popular kid-lit series — which already inspired four seasons of TV — turns an endearing collection of silly, spooky stories into a busy, noisy, soulless eyesore. Perfectly timed to capitalize on Halloween-happy family auds, the lackluster horror-comedy will likely squander its breakout potential once word of mouth gets out.
Instead of adapting any one or a select few of Stine’s 100-plus “Goosebumps” tales, the filmmakers opt for a greatest-hits mishmash that prioritizes the spectacle of a parade of monsters over any attempt at atmosphere or mystery. The result is like gorging on trick-or-treat candy — it may sound like a fun idea, but you’ll pay for it later.
Clean-cut teen protagonist Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his widowed mom (a grossly underused Amy Ryan) from New York to sleepy suburban Madison, Del. Hoping for a fresh start in the wake of his father’s untimely death, Zach finds an immediate distraction in the enigmatic girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush), whose overprotective father (Jack Black) warns Zach in no uncertain terms to stay away.
That’s especially hard to do when — in a “Rear Window” homage — Zach spies a father-daughter argument and Hannah disappears. Soon enough, a meta twist reveals that Hannah’s father is actually author R.L. Stine. He lives in seclusion to protect his original “Goosebumps” manuscripts, which have the power to manifest the monsters described within when opened.
Popular on Variety
Zach and his geeky pal, Champ (Ryan Lee), discover that supernatural development firsthand when they accidentally unleash the “Abominable Snowman of Pasadena” while snooping around Stine’s house. During the ensuing chaos, another creature comes to life: maniacal ventriloquist’s dummy Slappy (voiced by Black), who proceeds to spread Stine’s manuscripts all over town and conjures everything from a wolfman to man-eating plants, trigger-happy aliens with freeze rays and a vampire poodle.
Director Rob Letterman (who previously collaborated with Black on “Gulliver’s Travels”) stages a few reasonably well-crafted monster-specific setpieces, including a snowman showdown in an ice rink and a gang of demonic garden gnomes invading a kitchen, but for the most part “Goosebumps” rapidly devolves into a frantic roller-coaster ride with random creatures popping up at every turn. A list provided in the film’s production notes tallies 25 different spooks in all (and many of those, like the aliens and gnomes, appear in packs).
The ADD overload combined with an understandably kid-friendly approach to horror (no one’s ever in real danger, and the monsters are never too scary) results in a disposable product intended to appeal to everyone but likely to resonate with no one.
Performances are all over the map. Black’s hammy, Orson Welles-inspired turn fails to add much humanity to the role of a haunted author. Best known for supporting work in film and TV, Minnette adequately steps up to leading-man status, though his character is far too bland to invite real rooting interest. Talented comedians Timothy Simons and Ken Marino are wasted in throwaway roles, while Jillian Bell works overtime to steal her scenes as Zach’s perpetually single, Bedazzler-crazy aunt, but that’s petty theft at best.
From a tech perspective, “Goosebumps” is up to the current standards of broad family entertainment — though its mix of CGI and practical effects to bring the monsters to life falls far too heavily on the cartoony CG side of the equation. Aside from Slappy, a legit dummy puppeted by Avery Lee Jones, the key baddies are predominantly visual effects.
There was a time when Tim Burton — who surely would’ve put a more distinctive stamp on things — flirted with the project, which likely explains why Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “Big Eyes”) have story credit.