I was in the sixth grade and this kid sat next to me, god only knows his name now, and he slipped me a GOOSEBUMPS paperback with a green scary mask on the cover. He handed it to me under the desk like it was some sort of contraband. If the book had been thicker I would have assumed it was hollowed out and there was weed inside, but instead it was just a book. And I was supposed to read it.
I got about 15 pages in, pretty quickly, and then I stopped. Because I was already reading H.P. Lovecraft at the time and “Baby’s First Stephen King” just wasn’t doing it for me.
My point is, I just don’t have much affection for GOOSEBUMPS. It was after my time, albeit barely, so when I say that the new GOOSEBUMPS movie is great it has nothing whatsoever to do with my nostalgia. It has everything to do with the fact that I saw a movie, and I gave it a fair chance, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Twice.
That’s why it disturbs me to learn that a wave of anti-nostalgia is hitting some audience members when it comes to Rob Letterman’s GOOSEBUMPS. Those of us who didn’t give a damn when GOOSEBUMPS was popular in the first place apparently seem hellbent on continuing that apathetic streak and ignoring this film entirely.
And while you’re entitled to spend your money any damn way you please and ignore a movie forever, if that’s what makes you happy, I am a film critic. I have a responsibility to see as many movies as possible in every conceivable genre and give each and every one of them the same, equal chance to impress or at least entertain me. And when a film like GOOSEBUMPS comes along and overcomes all odds to be better than anyone assumed it would be, I also have a responsibility to explain why it deserves your hard-earned cash… or at least a little bit more of your credit card debt.
So, since the internet is anal as all hell and still obsessed with lists, here are FIVE AWESOME THINGS ABOUT GOOSEBUMPS that you should know about before you doom this movie to “underrated” status a few years down the line, after you finally deign to watch it on instant streaming, instead of just watching and appreciating it in the first place.
1. These Monsters Are Trying to Murder People
The problem with horror movies for kids is that they are horror movies for kids. We have a weird cultural obsession with protecting our children, and we even mollycoddle our youths when they specifically ask us to scare them. So kids often get bumbling monsters who can be neutralized with milk instead of actual walking, talking nightmares hellbent on killing our heroes dead, dead, dead.
And while GOOSEBUMPS doesn’t actually slaughter anyone (although one kid does end up in what looks like permanent traction), it’s not for lack of trying. The attack of the lawn gnomes should have been goofy and dumb but instead it’s actually pretty disturbing because everything they try to do to Jack Black and Dylan Minnette could conceivably murder the hell out of them. Comparably, the giant praying mantis wreaks enough destruction to kill hundreds via collateral damage and the werewolf pounces like a maniac throughout the grocery store and barks like an attack monster with rage.
GOOSEBUMPS isn’t so scary that kids are going to lose their minds, but it’s still actually pretty scary, especially for a film aimed at wee bairns. It doesn’t condescend to children in an effort to protect them. It all turns out okay in the end (mostly), but that’s only after being genuinely dangerous.
2. The Mythology of R.L. Stine
Did you know that children’s book author R.L. Stine is a notorious recluse, whose personal life is such a secret that J.D. Salinger would have been jealous of him? Probably not, because it isn’t true, but that’s a great dramatic device and GOOSEBUMPS runs with it.
GOOSEBUMPS takes place in the so-called “real” world, and tells the story of a teenager who moves in next door to a creepy man played by Jack Black who, it turns out, is actually R.L. Stine. The movie doesn’t linger too long on the reclusivity of R.L. Stine but rather takes for granted that the audience will go along with the idea that Stine is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It’s a clever conceit that adds to the mystique of the GOOSEBUMPS books and makes them seem more interesting than, let’s be honest, they actually are.
What’s more, Stine himself in the film is a creepy little weirdo who essentially imprisons his own teenaged daughter in their house. He’s a jealous freak who explodes at the mention of his rival, Stephen King. He’s an egomaniac. He’s constantly writing in his head, pausing mid-sentence to make mental note of a potentially good title for a new book. He’s a vibrant, memorable hero and also the film’s antagonist at the same time.
Because the idea behind GOOSEBUMPS, the movie anyway, is that R.L. Stine was sick a lot as a child and resented all of his normal peers, and he made up monsters to terrorize all the kids he hated. Then the monsters became real, and Stine had to trap them in the pages of his stories in order to keep the world safe from his own homicidal id. He now lives in isolation to protect the world from himself, not the other way around.
In particular, Slappy the ventriloquist dummy – voiced by Jack Black himself – comes to represent Stine’s darkest desires. He has a fully formed homicidal personality and a desire to wreak all the havoc that Stine himself refuses indulge in. To put it another way, GOOSEBUMPS is THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, but Mr. Hyde takes on a hundred forms at once and uses the creepy doll from DEAD OF NIGHT as his mouthpiece.
Stine is both a flawed hero and powerful villain. Fundamentally, he may even be one of the most interesting characters to come out of the horror genre in years.
3. The Monsters Have Their Moments
When you shove a bunch of heroes or villains into the same movie, some of them are going to get the short shrift. Hawkeye didn’t have a heck of a lot to do in THE AVENGERS and the Gill-man did jack squat in THE MONSTER SQUAD except get shot by the fat kid. (I’m sorry, I mean “Horace.”) So an all-star GOOSEBUMPS movie featuring practically every monster from the books was bound to be a mess, right?
Well, actually, no. While it’s true that there just isn’t time to give every character a big scene, Rob Letterman’s movie strikes an excellent balance. Many of the signature monsters, like Slappy, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and The Werewolf of Fever Swamp become the centerpiece of memorable action sequences that linger long enough to make a serious impact. What’s more, GOOSEBUMPS bounds breathlessly from each of these sequences to the next, like it’s on a sightseeing tour that refuses to move on until the audience fully appreciates each attraction.
One might even compare it, although I suspect the filmmakers weren’t thinking this loftily, to the fabulous action sequence from Satoshi Kon’s PAPRIKA, in which a film-obsessed detective jumps from one movie-inspired dream to another throughout an exhilarating chase. GOOSEBUMPS doesn’t have the time to be every movie at once but it sure as heck tries, and it knows when to slow down and also when to just put all the monsters in the same shot at once and have them attack en masse, like zombies who each have their own superpowers.
Those who love GOOSEBUMPS enough to have their favorite monster may discover that their villain of choice doesn’t spend a lot of time in the spotlight… er, moonlight… but as fan service goes, GOOSEBUMPS does a better job than most of cramming everything into the film without feeling rushed. It’s called “pacing,” and it’s an important part of every horror movie, even the ones for kids.
4. It’s Funny, Not Goofy
Pratfalls, fart jokes, and endless riffing on a single stupid topic, playing the odds that one non sequitur ad lib will finally make the audience laugh. These are the hallmarks of lazy comedy, and mercifully, they aren’t what GOOSEBUMPS relies on to amuse you.
Sure, there are silly moments. Co-star Ryan Lee has a girlish shriek and ha-ha isn’t that precious, and werewolf drool is icky enough to eke giggles out of the younger members of the audience. But watch GOOSEBUMPS and you’ll see that the real laughs stem from characters who are, like most people, funny sometimes. The way the hero’s mother, played by Amy Ryan, banters with her teenaged son is playful but realistic. They have chemistry because kids develop a relationship with their parents over time and they fall into repeated rhythms that, to the outside observer as well as the folks inside of those family units, come across as amusing.
Or look at the self-absorbed character Jillian Bell is playing. She’s not selfish or cruel, she’s just a little too focused on her own simple problems – like finding a boyfriend – to really pay attention to anything else. She’s lonely and thinks that other people are lonely too, and assumes that her teenaged nephew would be happy to spend his nights bedazzling instead of going to a school dance, because she certainly is. And the damnedest part of it all: when everyone else in town is getting killed by monsters, she’s still able to step up to the plate and save the day in her own small way.
The comedy here stems from characters behaving like people. Funny people, sure, but people nonetheless. That’s why even when GOOSEBUMPS goes cuckoo crazy you still find yourself caring about what happens to the protagonists. They may not be such fully formed creations that they will change your life, but they are fully believable in an unbelievable situation and that’s all anyone can realistically expect from a movie about magical children’s books.
5. If This Introduces Kids to Horror, We’ll All Be Better Off
I like HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA a lot, but it’s not a horror movie and I don’t think too many kids are going to leapfrog from that animated comedy about an overprotective Dracula dad to an actual Dracula movie (or heck, the book), and certainly not in one foul swoop. Like many horror-themed movies for kids it preaches sympathy for monstrous characters, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t actually prepare kids for the next step in their horror education.
GOOSEBUMPS, on the other hand, is practically a custom-made to act as a scary movie gateway drug. You could trip over the Slappy sequences and fall directly into CHILD’S PLAY. The evil clown, who doesn’t even get much screen time in GOOSEBUMPS, evokes STEPHEN KING’S IT so thoroughly that eventually fans of this film may be more likely to give that much scarier book/television mini-series a shot, and be able to handle it.
I wasn’t kidding when I called the GOOSEBUMPS books “Baby’s First Stephen King.” It’s a snide-sounding comment but if think about it, the GOOSEBUMPS books really were horror stories with training wheels. And the whole point of training wheels is that eventually they’re supposed to come off, freeing the trainee to explore the world more freely. Once GOOSEBUMPS stopped doing the trick, many of those who read R.L. Stine’s books sought out serious horror fiction in one medium or another.
Granted, GOOSEBUMPS might not be an invaluable element of the horror culture. Certainly many of us became horror fans without R.L. Stine’s help. But if GOOSEBUMPS, the books or the movie, manages to ease new fans into the horror genre with the same sort of fervor that those of us who write for Blumhouse now have, the world will be a better place for it. The horror genre is an artistic medium that hasn’t always had the level of respect it currently enjoys, and teaching readers and audience members alike to treat horror stories seriously from a young age – and not just because they want to hug Dracula like a squeeze toy, but because they actually enjoy the act of being scared – that’s a good thing.
The GOOSEBUMPS movie humanizes the people who create and read horror fiction, and it’s pretty scary in the process. It’s the kind of horror movie I would be excited to show my own kids, and if I were still a kid myself, it would be one of my new favorite films. It may not be a new timeless classic for the ages, but it’s a worthy addition to the woefully small subgenre of scary movies for children that aren’t condescending, and actually scare.