Nothing Raised on My Arm, but Goosebumps All the Same

Goosebumps (2015)
Dir: Rob Letterman
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I was not expecting to go to Goosebumps. Really, circumstance forced my hand. I had an afternoon at the movies planned, but as I scanned the movie times above the back of the ticket booth, I determined that seeing The Martian (finally) would not leave me with quite enough time to grab a nice, relaxing lunch before I took in the 4:45 p.m. showing of Crimson Peak. I have a great need in my life to keep as unflustered as I can if the situation allows. A relaxing lunch is one of those simple pleasures to which I must cling (with a very soft grip, of course), and so I changed my course.

As I was heading to the theatre late in the morning, I knew that Goosebumps was one of my last resort options, but I really did not expect that I would be saying the name of the film to the counter girl. But, there it was, a few dollars and a swipe of my Regal Crown Club card (rewards points, please), and I was holding a not-so-golden ticket that said Goosebumps on it. Based only on the little I knew about the film, Goosebumps seemed to fulfill my Halloween credentials, only in a more "fun-size" way, as it was clearly going to have scores of monsters in it. Which is precisely why I chose it over other non-horror-themed fare at the theatre yesterday.

A small flashback, if you don't mind. When the Goosebumps series by children's author R.L. Stine premiered in 1992, I was in my late '20s. I was still reading Stephen King then (I gave up not long afterward), and also took in many horror novelists of that period: Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, F. Paul Wilson, Charles L. Grant, Graham Masterson, David R. Schow (really big with me), and especially, Clive Barker. He was my guy at that time. But R.L. Stine? No. Not at all.

While I was a big fan of many children's books, and have a great many to this day in my personal library, I could not buy into the Goosebumps series. The books seemed to defang everything I loved about horror stories, even the monsters. Since I identify pretty much only with the monsters in stories, even when they are murderous (or especially because of it), you would think that I would enjoy the books simply as a junior version of the monsters I already loved. But I didn't need that. I saw Stine's monsters the way I saw the Muppet Babies. Yes, I have friends that love them (and they should be roundly punished for it), but I saw the toddler versions of Henson's creations as an unwelcome intrusion into my well-ordered Muppet universe. I didn't mind the ones introduced in The Muppets Take Manhattan so much, as they were merely meant for a musical number in a Miss Piggy dream sequence. But then the animated Saturday morning show happened, and I couldn't take it anymore. (And the fact that the Muppet Babies sparked a wave of similarly crappy shows with baby versions of other characters, like the Flintstones or Tom and Jerry, etc. Ugh...)

But I didn't need to literally buy into Stine's world, because I could preview it for free whenever I wanted. In those days, and for many, many years, I worked for a book and magazine warehouse where we stocked many Scholastic book titles, including the Goosebumps series. If you wanted to take a Scholastic book, you just tore off the front cover, made sure to turn it in so the book could be scanned and counted as destroyed in order for our company to get credit for its return to Scholastic, and left with the book. I didn't even need to do this because I would just read through the books on my breaks. You could zip through a book plus most of another in a day if you needed, and on the days when I would help pull orders for book fairs at local schools, I would sometimes kick my feet up and pound through a Goosebumps book for some very light lunch reading. I figure that I probably read through about nine or ten of the books over the years (there are 62 in all), and found them silly and far too formulaic (as is to be expected of a series). But I also recognized their appeal to kids, who aren't often ready for the bloodier, gorier terrors (full of actual fake death) of the more adult book and movie world, but really like monsters that don't kill and just cause general mayhem. As a fellow kid who loved Halloween and especially monsters, I could totally understand why the books were so popular.

Years have passed, and I pretty much forgot that Goosebumps existed. To hear that a film based on the series was being made was a little bit strange to my ears, because how many years ago was that? Do they even make those books any more? Do today's kids know what Goosebumps even is? Since I don't have a kid, I didn't know these answers. (I'm sure my friends can tell me all of the answers, but I really don't care.) And so I didn't know what I would find inside the theatre when I went to get my seat.

For a film predicted to be #1 at the box office this weekend, and add in the fact that I was seeing it at 12:40 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, the theatre was rather empty even though there were scores of kids in the lobby seeing something. (My guess is Hotel Transylvania 2.) There were about a dozen kids and their moms scattered about, a family of four seated to my left, and behind me sat the most interesting group, six older teenage boys (or maybe twenty-somethings). One of them would say things like, "Ooh, we're going to see a scary movie!" and one of the other ones would say, in a very exaggerated and mock angry tone, "Shut up! This is my movie! Don't ruin MY movie!" I chuckled quietly, but listened in while the second teen talked about reading the books when he was really young, and that he owned all of them, even the knockoff series that came out later. But he hadn't looked at them in years as he grew up. And now, like me, he too was sitting in a theatre ready to watch Goosebumps.

Like many of their generation, they were prone to talking openly during the movie, though in hushed tones thankfully. This was actually a case where I didn't mind the talk, because I really was interested in their reactions. Mine was that the film was far more entertaining than I thought it might be. For me, there is nothing worse than ennui at a movie. If Goosebumps had turned out to be poorly written, had terrible effects or acting, or was just determined to give the audience members a collective kick in the sack, I would have endured it, probably laughed openly at it, gotten excited about having a chance to tell everyone what an awful film I had seen, and live with the knowledge that I might have seen something that I shouldn't but had lived through it. My fear at Goosebumps was that it would just be something dull, by the numbers, and cynically calculated to separate dollars from wallets (not that it still isn't that last one). Middle of the road mush... my worst enemy.

And Goosebumps wasn't mush. Sure, there is a knockoff of the Blob in the film (as in several books), but it wasn't mush. It kept the audience laughing just enough to make sure none of us fell asleep, the character designs ran the gamut from fairly intriguing to very cool, and Jack Black is having a ball both underplaying/overplaying (at the same time!) as the reclusive author R.L. Stine, who keeps all of his original manuscripts of the original Goosebumps books under lock and key, because he has a secret. (It's all in the trailer, so this won't give anything away.) Thanks to some magical ability on his part, everything he writes comes to life, and he has to make sure the creatures he has created stay trapped inside their books lest they cause utter destruction to rain down on the populace. One character, Slappy, the mischievous ventriloquist dummy (also voiced by Jack Black) from Stine's Night of the Living Dummy II book, has a plan that will free all of Stine's monsters from their bonds to not only run amok, but also destroy Stine in the process.

Helping Stine are his teenage daughter, Hannah (who may be more than she appears), and the two boys who caused the breakout in the first place, his neighbor Zach and Zach's socially awkward new pal, Champ. On the way, we meet dozens of Stine's monsters, from a giant praying mantis to a platoon of killer garden gnomes (for me, they were the oddest characters in the film, with their creepy, glassy-eyed, head-turning ways) to a werewolf wearing Chuck Taylors to a swiftly reproducing Venus flytrap to a vampire poodle. You get the picture. Be it a swamp creature, an invisible person, or killer bugs, Stine devised (or some might say "stole," but I won't) a parallel version for his universe, and they all appear in this film, though many have very limited screen time.

To be honest, I didn't really care much about what happened in the story, and chiefly got caught up in seeing just how many monsters they could cram into the film (which was a lot). Once it is established that the monsters are indestructible and can only be stopped with the books, it makes fighting them a little fruitless. Still, Black and the kids have some help on the way, though the other roles are too small to make much of a difference. Amy Ryan, whom I adore, is perfect in the mom/vice principal role, but has little or nothing to do except be adorable, which is a waste of her considerable, Oscar-nominated talent. (I secretly suspect much of her role ended up getting cut.) Ken Marino is billed pretty low, and has a couple of decent lines, but not much else noteworthy except that he gets to hit on Ryan, of which I am jealous. Jillian Bell gets a far meatier role as Lorraine, Ryan's sister, and while I have not exactly warmed to Bell in some other projects (I find her basic schtick as an actress pretty one-note), here she is rather a delight. The actors in the teen roles do their jobs, but none of them shine particularly, especially given this is pretty much Black's show.

I can see this being a big film with parents who want to introduce their kids to the world of horror and monster films in a fairly gentle way. I can see some mom or dad showing them the film, and then saying, "OK, you saw that swamp monster. Now here's the version I saw when I was growing up." Goosebumps is never anything more than clean, light monster frolics for the younger set. It is definitely not as annoying in how it goes about it than Hotel Transylvania is, though I have stated to one of my friends that if I had grown up with that first HT film, I would be obsessed with it to this day. (I had no immunity to stupid monster jokes as a child, as my recent post about monster trading cards might show you.)  Even more so with Goosebumps, which is the monster movie my childhood never had. I can't like it any more beyond that, but I can understand what it is doing and why it exists.


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