"Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween" is what 2015's well-intentioned but underwhelming "Goosebumps
" should have been, telling a spookily fun and inventive story fit for an R.L. Stine novel rather than an overstuffed, greatest-hits mishmash. With no deeper themes to explore, director Ari Sandel (2015's "The Duff
") and screenwriter Rob Lieber (2014's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
") focus on amiably recreating the cliff-hanging blueprint of a middle-grade "Goosebumps" book. Setting the film on All Hallows' Evenay, building an entire plot hinging upon its namesake holidayis the blood-red cherry on top. Slight though it may be, it's also involving, thoroughly atmospheric, and altogether satisfying.
Halloween is fast approaching in the idyllic town of Wardenclyffe, New York (home of the Nikola Tesla Tower), and 13-year-old Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor), best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), and Sonny's college-bound sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) are in for some especially big frights. While cleaning out a dusty, old mansion as part of their makeshift junk-removal business, Sonny and Sam stumble upon an untitled book nestled in a trunk. Once the pages are opened, ventriloquist's dummy Slappy (voiced by Jack Black) is unleashed, desperate to be accepted into Sonny's family. When the puppet doesn't get his way, he sets about wreaking havoc on Wardenclyffe by bringing Halloween to life. It's all a part of R.L. Stine's (Jack Black) unpublishedand unfinishedmanuscript called "Haunted Halloween." How it ends will depend on whether or not Sonny, Sam and Sarah are able to save the day.
More so than the first "Goosebumps
," superior sequel "Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween" holds a keen understanding and appreciation of Stine's source material. In lieu of tossing in everything but the kitchen sink and seeing what sticks, this second installment focuses on Slappy as the central villain, the ghastly seasonal decorations around town coming to life as part of his malevolent master plan. Well-paced and less chaotic, the narrative offers better set-pieces and more personality from its assortment of baddies. From witches flying through the autumnal night sky, to fire-breathing jack-o'-lanterns, to the headless horseman stampeding down Main Street (with "Monster Mash" heard playing on a car radio during this latter moment), the picture is wall-to-wall festive, a Halloween lover's dream.
The protagonists, meanwhile, are a likable trio, with Jeremy Ray Taylor (2017's "It: Chapter One
"), Caleel Harris (Hulu's "Castle Rock"), and Madison Iseman (2017's "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle") gamely heading up the film and sharing an easygoing chemistry. Wendi McLendon-Covey (2016's "Hello, My Name Is Doris
") brings ever-welcome spirit and warmth to Sonny and Sarah's overworked single mom Kathy, who becomes a key target of Slappy's efforts to find a family. And Jack Black (2018's "The House with a Clock in Its Walls
"), reprising his role as author R.L. Stine, gets a nice moment late in the film opposite Sarah, an aspiring writer. "There is no greater horror in the world," he tells her, "than the terror of a blank page."
True to form for R.L. Stine's horror novels for kids and young adults, "Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween" has an undemanding but sincere moral or two to go along with its low-level thrills and chills. It also knowledgably tosses in some winking references for fans. Plotting their next move as all heck has broken loose outside, Sonny and Sarah share a brief heart-to-heart breather. "This is such a classic "Goosebumps' moment," Halloween-loving neighbor Mr. Chu (Ken Jeong) chimes in, breaking the heartfelt spell. "Ever read 'Say Cheese and Die'?" It cannot be promised viewers will cling to every second of "Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween" and vividly remember it months or even weeks after seeing it, but for 90 minutes it celebrates the season of the witch with celebratory imagination and mirthful energy to spare.