Aiming for a tone somewhere in the vicinity of “Monster Squad” and a more sanitized version of the films of Joe Dante, “Goosebumps” is a kiddie fright flick based on the massive series of Scholastic books by author R.L. Stine — a name that’s likely familiar to any child of the 90’s. Rather than a straightforward adaptation that cherrypicks from one or two of the books, director Rob Letterman (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) and writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, and Darren Lemke have created an inventive premise which allows them to incorporate them all. While it doesn’t follow Stine’s books to the letter, it captures their tone perfectly, skillfully straddling the line between anarchic, kid-friendly thrills and outright scares. In finding this balance, the film functions as a pretty fantastic entry point for younger viewers into the realm of horror.
Still recovering from the death of his father a year prior, Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves to the small town of Madison, Delaware, with his mother (Amy Ryan, getting much more to do here than she does in another of this week’s releases, “Bridge of Spies”), where she’s gotten a new job as vice principal of the local high school. Zach has barely moved into their new home before he finds himself smitten with Hannah (Odeya Rush), the girl next door, though Hannah’s overly protective father (Jack Black, in an admirably restrained performance) makes it very clear he doesn’t approve of Zach’s attentions toward his daughter.
After spending an evening getting to know one another (in a lovely scene set in an overgrown, abandoned amusement park in the woods near the teens’ homes), Zach overhears a heated argument between Hannah and her father, and fearing Hannah may be in danger, decides to investigate, bringing his dorky new friend, Champ (Ryan Lee), along as a lookout. They wind up inside the house, and during their search they stumble across a wall of manuscripts for what turns out to be “Goosebumps” books, each one secured with a lock. Hannah’s father just happens to be R.L. Stine (and props to the real-life Stine for approving his portrayal as a short-tempered misanthrope). It seems that whatever creatures Stine conjures from his imagination become real, forcing him to keep them locked away in the pages of his books. Of course, the kids end up accidentally unlocking one of those books, setting loose an abominable snowman and starting a chain of events that ultimately unleashes a tidal wave of monster mayhem upon their sleepy little town.
For a film overflowing with monsters — among them: a giant praying mantis, zombies, werewolves, man-eating plants, evil clowns, and a major nemesis in the form of a ventriloquist’s puppet (don’t call him a dummy) named Slappy — it’s rather shocking that “Goosebumps” takes its time building a world before setting its horrors loose upon it. It gives us a cast of appealing characters (including supporting roles for Ken Marino and Jillian Bell as Zach’s well-meaning aunt), and spends a decent amount of time actually developing them.
Even more importantly, the movie takes its monsters seriously (for the most part): they’re treated like threats who want nothing more than to tear our heroes limb from limb. This gives the film a sense of danger, though it’s only a sense — fear not, worried parents, for all its monster mayhem, the film still boasts a body count of zero. I will admit that this makes me a little nostalgic for previous generations of kids adventure films that weren’t afraid to traumatize young viewers and were willing to shed a little blood — but maybe that’s just me.
There are a number of great little set pieces throughout the film, the best of which is a kitchen battle against a horde of murderous garden gnomes that plays as a clever, tongue-in-cheek nod to a similar sequence in Dante’s “Gremlins.” And in a nice touch, Slappy appears to mostly be portrayed by an actual, physical puppet. Though it did make me wish a few more of the beasties were done as practical effects, if only to further capture the feel of a bygone era of kids entertainment. Told with enough wit and good-natured thrills to satisfy most audiences, “Goosebumps” is terrific, spooky fun for budding horror fans of all ages.