Not only is it a loving, faithful homage to the beloved R.L. Stine series, it’s also the closest we’ll probably ever get to a live-action Zombies Ate My Neighbors movie.
By: Jimbo X
I never read any of the Goosebumps books when I was a kid. Sure, I may have skimmed a few chapters here and there, but frankly, as a grade schooler already weaned on Michael Myers movies, there just wasn’t much there for me to get too excited about.
I have fonder recollections, however, of the old Fox Kids television series. It’s inherent campiness made it a much more entertaining offering than Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and the cornball acting (complemented by a near microscopic budget) made each episode feel like something of a G-Rated Full Moon production.
Goosebumps, the slightly higher polished 2015 big-screen redo, is both a heartfelt homage and semi-caustic deconstruction of the Stein cash cow (which, frankly, hasn’t been relevant since prior to the advent of Viagra.) Instead of taking the Creepshow/Tales From The Crypt anthology approach, the movie more or less tosses in every single Goosebumps offering into a blender, hits puree, and gives the liquefied mess to the world’s most rambunctious fifth-grader … who just so happens to be coked out of his gills on Monster and Ritalin. As the analogy would lead you to believe, rest assured, this movie is indeed all over the damn place.
Alas, that pell-mell mentality actually works in the movie’s favor, giving today’s Avengers-addled adolescents probably the closest thing they’re likely to experience to a modern day Gremlins. It’s a film that takes the Birdman-ian “apocalypse porn” template and transplants it to a smaller, almost rustic scale; in that, its quaint and cozy “end-of-the-world” thematic makes it feel almost like a Them! or The Blob for the iPad Generation. It’s good old fashioned, B-monster movie cheese through and through, proudly imitating the kind of joyous, post-Atomic Age horror hokum that really hasn’t been en vogue since the Civil Rights era.
The film begins, as do virtually all tween-targeted offerings these days, with our heroic, hunky young stud muffin moving (ever so reluctantly, of course) into a new town with his freshly widowed mama. Right off the bat, he catches the eye of the sneaky Manic Pixie Girl next door, whose super overprotective father (Jack Black, doing his best snooty, Orson Welles impersonation) doesn’t want her going anywhere near him. We’re introduced to the supporting cast -- probably the most important are the main character’s man-hungry, Bedazzler-obsessed aunt and an annoying, Duckie-like best bud named Champ --and we’re immediately thrust into a subplot that indelicately touches upon the topic of child abuse (complete with an honest-to-goodness paedo joke from an inexperienced female cop.) Eventually, our protagonist and his dorky new pal decide to just up and break and enter into their next door neighbor’s house, where it is soon revealed that -- in addition to keeping bear traps all over the place -- he also seems to possess every single Goosebumps manuscript ever written (it takes an agonizingly long time, however, before the dimwitted duo comes to the realization that Jack Black actually is R.L. Stine.) The manuscripts, however, are padlocked, and for good reason, since each and every rough draft actually contains the spirit of some foul demon, ghoul, phantom or overgrown supernatural beast. This being a lite-horror romp, you can take a wild guess what happens next, and it ain’t long before the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena is eating vending machines whole at hockey rinks and virtually unkillable, homicidal lawn gnomes are trying to bake people alive in gas ovens (an oblique nod to the classic made-for-TV offering Trilogy of Terror, I take it?)
Things get really hairy once Slappy -- a pun-loving, sentient ventriloquist’s dummy with an inflection that sounds an awful lot like a certain Tenacious D frontman -- breaks free from his folio prison and goes on a cross-town book-burning spree, unleashing hordes of ghastly (but still suitably PG) creatures on the poor, unassuming denizens of exurban Delaware. With all of the reasonable, responsible adults all zapped into a quasi-cryogenic state by freeze gun-toting Martians, it’s up to our trio of dauntless teens and the miserly young adult author to save the local high school from an armada of giant grasshoppers, killer clowns (who may or may not be from outer space) and of course, a torrent of grisly, gruesome and presumably greasy Monster Blood (think, an evil behemoth Jell-O mold.)
The all-out monster jamboree certainly merits a comparison or two to The Monster Squad, the cult-classic Fred Dekker flick from the 1980s which saw a gaggle of moppets doing battle with a couple of palette swaps of the old Universal Studios horror mascots. It wasn’t until halfway through the film, however -- I believe it was the sequence in which our heroic quartet battled a gym-shorts-bedecked werewolf in an empty grocery store -- that the film’s true inspirational source presented itself. This film may be called Goosebumps, but at heart, it’s essentially a stealth adaptation of the classic SNES and Genesis video game Zombies Ate My Neighbors -- right down to the utilization of soda pop and unorthodox silverware as anti-Lycanthrope weaponry.
Of course, all of the ghouls and carnivorous plants and gigantic mosquitoes in the world don’t add up to a hill of beans if the characters being chased around and all over aren’t interesting, and thankfully, Goosebumps provides some fairly intriguing -- if not appropriately one-dimensional -- fodder for the hell beasts. Clearly, this is Jack Black’s movie, through and through, as he absolutely owns his performance as an exaggerated, excessively dour R.L. Stine (apparently a good sport about the self-deprecating depiction, the real Stine has a split-second cameo at the tail end of the movie.) Black’s catty back and forth banter with his daughter’s suitor provide the film with its most entertaining exchanges -- particularly, the bit where Stine is “mocked” as a Stephen King wannabe (to which Black fires back that he’s actually sold 50 million more books, which, much to my exasperated surprise, is indeed God's honest truth.)
Of course, not everything the film throws at us is necessarily well-executed. There’s an out-of-left-field supernatural twist involving Stine’s daughter revealed halfway through the film, which itself leads to a groan-inducing copout in the movie’s dénouement. Furthermore, the slam-bang conclusion -- a climactic Monsterpalooza throwdown held in an abandoned carnival oh so conveniently located in the middle of the forest -- feels a bit too clichéd and forced, even for a movie that more or less succeeds at lovingly ridiculing the source material.
Alas, for every misstep the movie takes, it lands at least two or three almost perfectly. In addition to the copious creepy crawlies and Black’s inspired performance, there are also hilarious odes a plenty to other horror properties (a nod to The Shining generated perhaps my cinema’s loudest laughs) and the movie’s final “twist” is satisfyingly subtle and surprising.
Alongside M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit -- yet another superlative non-hard-R genre offering from earlier this fall -- Goosebumps represents something of a mini-resurgence in semi-family-friendly horror. Unlike Scream or Cabin in the Woods, it is a reverential mockery of the genre, as opposed to being smarmily, fashionably ironic and irreverent. It’s just a fun, unpretentious homage to not only the 1990s multimedia brand, but really, the old-school, watch-it-with-your-parents hybrid fantasy flicks of the ‘80s, a’la Explorers and The Goonies.
Simply put? In a pop-cultural landscape glutted with insincere nostalgia, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy something this paradisiacally unpretentious.
Three Tofu Dogs out of Four.