Goosebumps, the book series, will forever be entwined with many people’s early reading lives; I can still nostalgically remember the first R.L. Stine book I decided to purchase when I was younger (it was The Werewolf of Fever Swamp if you’re interested). With that kind of reader fanbase – both from adults growing up with the series and kids who have had the books passed down to them from their parents – a live-action film based on those books could either be a huge success or a blight on the series, and it’s a risky venture all-around; the magic of those stories came from the atmosphere of Stine’s writing and the early childhood development of imagination, and that doesn’t always translate well to the big screen. And Goosebumps was, for a time, a television series anyway, so tackling the idea again two decades (seriously, that long huh?) after the show premiered is questionable too.
But thankfully director Rob Letterman, along with screenwriter Darren Lemke, bring both the funny and the chills with this mash-up of many different Goosebumps books. They take a meta direction with the film, opting to set the story in a world where the Goosebumps books really exist; it’s a great touch that changes things significantly from what could have been just an adaptation of one or two of Stine’s novels.
Dylan Minnette stars as Zach, a kid moving to a new city with his mother after the death of his father about a year prior. And while this is pretty much the most cliched way possible to begin such a tale, it’s also an intentional nod to Stine’s book series because it’s the way many of his stories start – in the midst of teenage angst, uprooted from normal life.
It’s key, though, that Lemke delivers an engaging script, and Goosebumps does so with some seriously witty joke-writing. Letterman establishes the quirky mother-son dynamic early on as well as supplementing with some great characters, like Aunt Lorraine (excellently played by Jillian Bell). It’s a set-up that takes up nearly the first act of the film, but it’s worth it – that good-guy persona of Zach is established, as well as putting a cry-wolf doubt in most of the adults’ minds after he calls the cop on his neighbor Stine (Jack Black) when he hears arguing between him and his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush).
But once the real arc of Goosebumps sets in, it’s all action from there on out. The Goosebumps books Stine keeps on his shelves really house monsters, describing a youthful Stine alone with his writing and creating friends to keep him company. While Goosebumps is primarily written for young adults, it certainly manages to incorporate adult dynamics as well, and that’s probably one of the best successes both Letterman and Lemke manage in the film. Adults will be pulled into the plot as well, and paired with the often mature comedy masked for younger audiences, Goosebumps ensures that all age groups will enjoy the spooky festivities.
Even better, though, is the Cabin in the Woods-style inclusion of nearly all of R.L. Stine’s creepy crawlies. Through a mixture of CGI (that’s actually forgiveable in this film) and human monsters, Goosebumps throws everything thrilling about Stine’s creations into the film with a noticeable inclusion of certain specific ideas – the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, for example, gets a lot of screen time. But there are shots and quick spotlights on a large number of Goosebumps monsters that will appeal to anyone who read those stories, and kudos to Letterman and Lemke for finding a way to incorporate all of the monsters in one funny, freaky film.
It’s important to note that, for all its mockings of R.L. Stine thanks to Jack Black, Goosebumps definitely has the author’s support – he even shows up for a quick cameo. The end credits reimagine the artwork of his books in new ways. There are even a few joking comments about Stine’s similarities to Stephen King. Goosebumps is clearly a loving tribute to the Scholastic books of old, and that shines through in just about every aspect of Letterman’s direction. It’s a distinction that elevates the film from something that could just as easily have failed to produce the right kind of balance between jokes and horror that have always been the pinnacle of a Goosebumps book.
Fans of the book series will find that pretty much all of their wishes have been incorporated into this live-action meta-telling of Goosebumps, but even those with a vague working knowledge of the series will most likely enjoy the humor and scares of this kids’ film. There are some major cliches – one of them being the insistence that men have to be heroes for women – but Goosebumps is able to successfully maneuver around them with a well-written script and a direction that includes every monster in the Stine’s book series. This is what Goosebumps fans have been clamoring for. Viewer beware, you’re in for a scare (and more than a few laughs, too).