Creature feature collaborations are almost always fun watches with films like Destroy All Monsters and the old Universal monster mash-ups feeding our imaginations and childhood desires. The new feature adaptation of R.L. Stine’s bestselling Goosebumps books takes the idea and runs with it resulting in the biggest onscreen gathering of living nightmares since Cabin in the Woods. Fans of the books will enjoy it most, but even non-readers will enjoy seeing evil clowns, giant insects, and gelatinous blobs sharing the screen.
Unfortunately though, the ghouls, goblins, and Abominable Snowman all pale beside the film’s biggest horror – the outdated and insulting notion that boys rule and girls drool.
Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) are new in town and trying to start anew after the death of Zach’s father a year ago. His quest for friends is hampered by his mom’s job as Vice Principal and an aunt (Jillian Bell) who thinks teenage boys like Bedazzling fabrics on a Friday night, but he quickly lands an outgoing classmate named Champ (Ryan Lee). He also meets a mysterious neighbor named Hannah (Odeya Rush) before being shut down by her dad (Jack Black) and told to stay far away from her.
A dangerous mix of boredom and testosterone leaves that a non-starter for Zach though, and it’s not long before he discovers Hannah’s father’s secret. He’s R.L. Stine. The creepy crawlies and malevolent monsters in his books are real. And Zach just accidentally let one out. Soon the town is overrun with evil entities intent on staying free, and it’s up to Stine and the three teens to close the book on this particular nightmare.
Early antics including jokes about Guantanamo Bay and Detroit – you know, typical kids stuff – quickly give way to plenty of physical gags and mugging from Black. It’s playful though and works to create a harmless, fast-moving environment. Director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs Aliens) follows up his lackluster live-action debut, Gulliver’s Travels, with a simpler, more energetic tale that plays like the second half of Jumanji infused with Stine’s creations.
Werewolves, giant insects, and others run havoc over the town causing extensive property damage while avoiding human fatalities – it’s still a kids movie after all – and the destruction entertains for a little while on the power of the visuals alone. Some of the CG underwhelms, but most of it gets the job done including a highlight scene featuring an orchestrated home invasion by garden gnomes. It’s eye-candy for growing horror fans, and anything that nurtures a love for genre can’t be all bad.
The story plays out exactly as you’d expect, and while you can make the argument that it’s for kids that’s really not a reason to keep things so one-note and obvious. Letterman has never shown an interest in challenging young viewers with his films and instead seems content spoon-feeding them fast, loud action and paper-thin characterizations. Goosebumps is more of the same, albeit with cool-looking creatures and a handful of chuckles, but it takes things one step further – or backward, actually – by turning it into a not-so subtle boy’s club.
The males have heroic beats and actually get to do things. The females accomplish nothing and are relegated to being rewards for their masculine saviors.
Sure, it’s ostensibly Zach’s story, but there’s no arc of any kind that sees him coming out of his shell or discovering his bravery within – he ends the film essentially as he starts it. Stine created the monsters so his efforts are expected to reign in the creatures, and even Champ gets his moment and a subsequent kiss from a cleavage-baring hottie. Hannah and Zach’s mom meanwhile are little more than witnesses, and while Aunt Lorraine gets a fun kill in it’s chalked up to being an accident. Women drivers. Ha.
This isn’t an issue of films needing to be equal in all ways to everyone, but Stine’s Goosebumps series is an asexual literary phenomenon that captured (and continues to attract) boys and girls alike in its tales of goofy terror. It’s unfortunate that the series’ move onto the big screen comes at the cost of telling half the audience that their role is as passive viewers only until it’s time to kiss the hero. Trust me, girls can be heroes too. It’s not as scary a possibility as it sounds.
The Upside: Fun, creative creatures; some laughs
The Downside: Girls deserve better; supremely simple A to B plot; never really feels threatening; Jack Black’s annoyingly false “author voice”; I don’t even recall any female monsters?