Who is the new Goosebumps movie for? The new adaptation of R.L. Stine’s popular series of children’s horror novels doesn’t want to decide. On the one hand, it makes sense that Sony Pictures and publisher Scholastic would opt to make a PG-rated adventure that, like the books, appeals primarily to children. On the other, the Goosebumps name is more recognizable to 20- and 30-somethings; though R.L. Stine is still writing them, the series’ cultural heyday was the mid-’90s. Rather than picking one audience or the other, Goosebumps tries to have it all, but ends up with a textbook kids’ movie that relies heavily on fan nostalgia for characters more recognizable to adults than its target audience.
The film’s painful awareness of the age split between fans and age-appropriate newcomers runs all the way to the film’s premise, which dumps the source material in favor of a meta-plot based around the Goosebumps books themselves. In a nondescript suburban town, R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) hide from the world, protecting the original Goosebumps manuscripts, which contain real versions of the creatures he created. When Zach, played by perennial YA hero Dylan Minnette, and his mother move next door, he and Hannah have a little love connection, which leads him into the Stine house (for completely innocent reasons), where he inadvertently frees Stine’s monsters from their page-cages.
While this plot allows a very large number the Goosebumps’ monsters to make cameo appearances, it turns out the creatures don’t make a strong enough impression to support the story’s weight. Other than monster master Slappy, a killer ventriloquist’s doll and the series’ de facto mascot, only a few monsters, such as The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, are introduced explicitly by book title, with all the subtlety of waving a book in your face and yelling, “Remember this one!?”
The rest, often folded into a mob of incongruent nightmares, don’t have the context to frighten or even intrigue. Most fall into generic horror tropes, including child-friendly takes on classic monsters like the mummy and wolf-man — sorry, wolf-boy— along with horror versions of everyday items: the killer garden gnomes, killer houseplants, and a killer car. Children (and adult fans) intimately familiar with the books may be able to point out their favorites, but without a familiar story fall back on, there’s no moment to bring you back, to stimulate that warm, fuzzy (or maybe cold and creepy?) feeling of a memory unlocked.
On the other end of the spectrum, the film is definitely aware that any children in the audience might be potential customers that may not even be aware of the brand. To rectify this, a few lines of not-so-subtle background sprinkled into the first half of the film describe the series in terms that would sound more natural in a publisher’s press release than coming out of a teenage boy. Fun fact: Goosebumps has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide. I know that because Stine says it in the movie.
Meta-plot and mind-games aside, the movie still manages to capture the campy essence of a Goosebumps story in spots. Small details —familiar character archetypes and plot devices — revel in the same spooky camp that might give an eight-year-old the willies.
Black plays Stine as a more crotchety version of his standard persona, goofy and spastic, but when his bespectacled head pops through a hole in the neighbor’s fence to warn him to stay out of his business, he feels like a Stine-staple “creepy caretaker.” Backing out a step further, even the premise at a glance — all of your Goosebumps books came to life and are hunting you down — sounds like it could be the premise of an R.L. Stine book.
It would be tempting to simply dismiss Goosebumps as a sad attempt to circumvent the fickle whims of children by appealing to their parents’ more predictable interests. But maybe Goosebumps has just enough appeal to be a decent kids’ movie. Because despite its history and its obvious desire to appeal to both generations, it seems the film isn’t truly meant to be scrutinized by the wiki-editing reference fiends. Maybe this movie isn’t for you; maybe it’s just for kids. And if it had known that all along, perhaps it could have been a better movie for them.