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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Goosebumps  (2015)
2 Stars
Directed by Rob Letterman.
Cast: Dylan Minnette, Jack Black, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Krueger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Karan Soni, R.L. Stine.
2015 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for scary situations and some rude humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, October 15, 2015.
From 1992 to 1997, author R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" book series was a force to be reckoned in the middle-grade literary market, earning spots on bestseller lists while capturing the imaginations of children with a taste for the creepy and fantastic. Aiming for a slightly younger demographic than the writer's successful YA horror novels (if the names "Fear Street" and "Point" sound familiar, you were likely a tween or teen in the 1990s), "Goosebumps" took off in a big way, ultimately breeding spin-offs, copious merchandise, and even a television series. As a lifelong lover of all things frightening who also happened to be exactly the right age to appreciate Stine's stories of evil dummies, haunted masks and monster blood, I was hooked, his chapter-by-chapter cliffhangers urging me to turn each new page. While new books in recent years have helped to revitalize the series for the latest generation of kids, it is the nostalgia of fans now in their 30s who undoubtedly hold the most affection for this brand.

The franchise's first big-screen foray wrangles together a heap of its various villains, a sort of greatest-hits showcase, but this concept sounds more promising than the mediocre reality. Director Rob Letterman (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") and screenwriter Darren Lemke (2013's "Jack the Giant Slayer") get off on the right foot setting up the colorful characters and a general wry sense of humor, but inspiration falters at the precise moment when the central plot should be kicking into high gear. That the films it most resembles—1984's "Gremlins," 1993's "Hocus Pocus," and 1995's "Jumanji"—are far superior only calls attention to the places this one falters. "Goosebumps" isn't as funny as it wants to be, as scary as it should be, or as magical as it needs to be.

16-year-old Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) has just moved with mom Gail (Amy Ryan) from Manhattan to the sleepy burg of Madison, Deleware, a place where seemingly nothing exciting happens. Still struggling to accept the recent death of his father, he hopes a change of scenery will bring him a fresh start. On his first day in town, things already begin to look up when he meets cute girl-next-door Hannah (Odeya Rush). Her dad, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black), isn't as happy with them becoming friends and cagily insists he stay away from her. When Zach has a "Rear Window" moment and suspects Hannah is in danger, he and new pal Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak into the Shivers' cellar to investigate. Their discovery that Hannah's father is famed children's author R.L. Stine is just the tip of the iceberg as the locked manuscripts of all his "Goosebumps" books are opened, inadvertently unleashing the wicked main attractions from their storybook pages. If there is any hope to save the unsuspecting town, Zach, Hannah, Champ and R.L. will have to work together to send the monsters back to the fictional realm where they belong.

"Goosebumps" has all the makings of a movie that ought to be aligned with my personal tastes and interests, yet its horror scenes fall flat and lack ingenuity. In adapting Stine's work to film, Letterman and Lemke squander the use of the series' well-remembered fright figures and downgrade many of the best ones—deadly clowns, scarecrows and pumpkinheads—to cameo status, glimpsed only in brief group shots. Slappy, the maniacal ventriloquist's dummy, has a larger role as the appointed ringleader of the baddies, but even he is given little to do. The narrative eventually becomes a stream of unmemorable chase set-pieces pitting R.L. and the teens against unconvincing CG renderings of the Abominable Snowman, a giant praying mantis, garden gnomes and a werewolf. Unfortunately, the film is bereft of tension. The creatures pop up, run around, and then the script moves on without allowing any of these showdowns to build suspense or a tangible threat. That the climax sends the characters racing into a spooky funhouse and then does exactly nothing at all with the location is a sin unto itself.

"Goosebumps" isn't without glimmers of charm, starting with the sweet relationship between Dylan Minnette's (2014's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day") Zach and Odeya Rush's (2014's "The Giver") Hannah, who share a lovely early scene at the top of an out-of-operation ferris wheel while looking out over the twinkling lights of their town. Danny Elfman's (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful") darkly cool orchestrations are everything a person could want a Danny Elfman score to be, making one wish there were better, eerier sequences to accompany said music. Supporting performances from Ryan Lee (2011's "Super 8") as the eager, girl-crazy Champ, Amy Ryan (2015's "Bridge of Spies") as Zach's vice principal mother Gail, the scene-stealing Jillian Bell (2014's "22 Jump Street") as Zach's bedazzle-crazy Aunt Lorraine, and Amanda Lund as overzealous officer trainee Brooks make instant impressions even when they are underutilized. The weak link, oddly enough, is usually on-point headliner Jack Black (2015's "The D Train"), who can never quite figure out how to play the cantankerous, regally accented R.L. Stine; his character's softening personality as the story progresses is ineffectual, while his chemistry with his co-stars seems off. Per Stine's writerly belief code, every self-respecting work should have a beginning, a middle, and a twist. Alas, the twist within this particular "Goosebumps" is the film's seeming inability to provoke its fearful title reaction even once.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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