‘Goosebumps’ Review | Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Be An R.L. Stiner
“Horror movies for children” should probably be an oxymoron, but it’s not. It’s just really, really hard to get them right. The urge to make our kids feel safe often gets in the way of scaring them out of their minds, so young audiences typically end up settling for horror-themed movies like Hotel Transylvania instead of actual horror movies that, in an affectionate attempt at compromise, simply don’t veer too far into nightmare territory.
The films that do pull off this monstrous feat, films like The Monster Squad and Gremlins, become legends in their own time. They allow children to poke at the edges of adulthood by facing their fears and, like the protagonists in such films, emerge more or less victorious. We need films like The Watcher in the Woods and Coraline. And we need films like Goosebumps, which is so unexpectedly deft at balancing humor, drama and scares that it seems destined to become a Halloween classic, if only at slumber parties.
Directed by Rob Letterman, Goosebumps is the smartly written tale of teenagers who accidentally unleash all the monsters from all of R.L. Stine’s popular Goosebumps books at once. That is a blatant attempt at fan-service; it’s like Freddy vs. Jason vs. Everyone. But instead of feeling like it’s about to burst at the seams, Letterman’s Goosebumps breathlessly bounds from one beast to the next like it’s on monster safari. A giant praying mantis car chase segues directly into a werewolf battle which leads immediately into a zombie apocalypse in microcosm. The action is fast-paced, never rushed.
The story is about Zach (Dylan Minnette), a teen who moves to Delaware, right next to the home of famously reclusive author R.L. Stine (Jack Black). But when Zach discovers that R.L. Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) is being held prisoner by her dad, he breaks in which his affable pal Champ (Ryan Lee) and they learn that the reason why Stine is reclusive, and the reason why Hannah isn’t allowed outdoors, is because their house is filled with monsters who are only barely kept in check. They are trapped in the pages of Stine’s Goosebumps manuscripts, and cracking them open unleashes hell on Earth, or at least The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena.
Things go from bad to worse, but only for the characters. For the audience it goes from engaging to even more entertaining. Letterman sets up his characters like they were in a Goosebumps novel, with time and care taken to make them feel real and funny and distinctive. And then once the horror strikes, it’s impressive just how scary he can make this movie without losing his sense of humor. The sense of scale when peering upward at a giant Praying Mantis is downright Lovecraftian. The werewolf really does look like he wants to kill everyone. The evil clown is a VERY evil-looking clown.
Chock full of imaginative visual effects, likable characters and memorable villains, Goosebumps manages to become a great horror movie for kids. It’s scary but never outright horrifying, and it never feels like it’s pulling its punches just to protect children from the experience they came to this theater specifically to have. If I were seven years old this would be one of my favorite movies. But even as an adult it makes me shiver with horripilation.
Images: Columbia Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.