Goosebumps, an energetic kid-friendly monster movie using R.L. Stein’s long-running series of young reader horror books as inspiration, is the best Joe Dante movie Joe Dante didn’t make. Sure, it doesn’t have his wicked satire (a la Small Soldiers or the Gremlins movies), but it shares with his sensibilities an expression of movie love, indebted to B-movie creature features and giddy with manic matinee action. It finds a small Delaware town overrun with cartoony beasts ripped straight from the pages of Stein’s books. That’s not just an expression in this case. Screenwriters Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Laraszewski’s conceit is that the author himself conjured these evil creatures with a magical typewriter, trapping them within the pages of his manuscripts. When a series of unfortunate accidents send his library fluttering to the wind, it’s a mad dash to save the day. The author of these nightmares is the only one who can wrangle them.
Jack Black plays Stein in a performance amusing for its oddball stillness, projecting light gravitas from behind thick glasses and deliberate movements. He clamps down his natural unrestrained comic charisma here, using a theatrical clipped voice that’s Vincent Price adjacent, ending up projecting a funny self-seriousness. I especially liked a running joke about his feelings of inferiority to Stephen King. We meet him as a standoffish neighbor who glowers at a teenager (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) who’ve just moved in next door. The boy strikes up a flirtation with Stein’s daughter (Odeya Rush), who we soon learn is forced to stay inside so as not to let her father’s dangerous literary secret out. But of course the boy’s suspicious of this arrangement, and totally crushing on the girl, so he calls a new nerdy friend (Ryan Lee) to help him investigate. Then, of course, the aforementioned accidents lead to a whole nutty chain of events and monsters everywhere.
As Stein and the teens scramble to make things right, the town is destroyed in a carnival funhouse of light frights and sprightly action, springing giggling good monster movie jumps and laughs with each new sequence. Confrontations with werewolves, zombies, towering bugs, nasty gnomes, wicked aliens, laser-wielding robots, an invisible boy, and more careen through a progressively more battered downtown, eventually converging, as all teen-centric films must, at the Big School Dance. Along the way, they encounter inattentive and ineffective authority figures entirely unprepared to help in such a strange situation. There are silly cops (Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund), a goofy aunt (Jillian Bell), and doofus teachers (Ken Marino), an ensemble fully stocked with ace comic character actors who are a little underutilized, but at least don’t wear out their welcome.
Fast-paced and sometimes inventive, the action sequences make good use of several typical horror movie locations: a locked house, an abandoned store, a cemetery, a school. The speed to the incidents and slapstick approach to unreal violence cackles along, making this less a scary story, more a rollicking adventure. A maniacal ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (voiced by Black, twisting his speech into a Joker’s howl) leads the various beasties in an attack on their creator, making for a fine villain to chase and flee, and eventually confront in a satisfying climax. The characters remain thin types – the hero, the tortured creator, the coward, the girl – but the quartet have funny chemistry, and fly through the film’s mostly sturdy construction. They hold their own against a flurry of effects and effectively staged stunts, including some nifty flipped vehicles. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe makes bright, colorful images dusted in a layer of mildly menacing atmosphere, creating a pleasant fall chill to the sparkling fun, with Danny Elfman’s bouncy score animating its gentle macabre spirit.
Director Rob Letterman, formerly of DreamWorks Animation, keeps the movie hopping along nicely with a slick, smooth approach that makes it all seem just the right kind of dangerous. It’s safe enough to be only fun, but chaotic enough to get carried away with its light popcorn thrills. It’s fast, funny, and enjoyable, pinned in only by its token emotional journey for the lead boy, who gets a deeply weird romantic payoff, and a struggle with grief that’s quickly dropped. Goosebumps is too busy having fun with its horror mash-up to stop for such mushy stuff, I guess. That’s just as well. It’s a fine evocation of the books (there are now nearly 200 of them) that were all the rage when I was in elementary school and continue to be popular amongst some kids these days, a movie mixing and matching its monsters to find appealing kid-friendly action. It’s not millennial nostalgia or children’s pap. It’s sweet crowd-pleasing entertainment with cross-generational appeal, casually expressing a terrific and, oddly enough, uncommon kid’s movie lesson: writing is great, reading is fun, and cultivating your imagination saves the day.