Although common wisdom (and the MPAA) dictates that we shield our children from horror imagery, I can say from experience – and I think many of you will agree – that young kids can already grasp the thrill of being scared. Indeed, I think children might like being scared more than they let on. As children, we tend to be drawn to horror movies and scary stories, seeking the verboten, taboo thrill of monsters and death, so vivid in our imaginations, so cleverly hidden by the adults in our lives. I am too old to be in the demographic for R.L. Stine‘s Goosebumps books (published from 1992 to 1997, my high school and college years), but I can appreciate their appeal and understand their function. Goosebumps gave children a chance to indulge in horror fantasies without having to worry about violence and death, getting the full thrill of a monster with only half the threat levels. It was just scary enough for the tykes.
The Goosebumps series has now been adapted into feature film by bland family director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels), and it is a sweet, gentle thriller that makes up in wit and visual appeal what it lacks in grit and, well, actual scares. The story – conceived by celebrity screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – pits R.L. Stine himself (played by Jack Black), as well as a trio of teenagers (Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, and Ryan Lee) against every single monster from Stine’s series, which have been magically kept prisoner inside the original Goosebumps manuscripts, and who are being wrangled and led by the vengeful living ventriloquist dummy Slappy (also Black).
Heroes of kids’ movies – especially those played by vaguely handsome white teenage boys – tend to be bland avatars, their dialogue rarely pushing beyond mere description. Goosebumps is mercifully possessed of a small amount of wit, and surrounds its central hero (Minnette) with flip, witty people. His mother (Amy Ryan), for instance, does more than wring her hands, and comes across as a real adult woman. His love interest (Rush) is more than a prize to be won, and his best friend is an amusing coward in the Shaggy mould. Jillian Bell from 22 Jump Street is a powerful comedienne to keep an eye on, and, as Minntte’s boy-crazy aunt, she steals every scene she’s in.
The meta-narrative is perhaps the cleverest approach one can bring to an adaptation like this, and Goosebumps takes a lot of cues from the meta-horror cult fave The Cabin in the Woods (as well as the 1991 John Candy comedy Delirious). Goosebumps, however, has no highfalutin pretensions of trying to dissect fiction, and no ambitious to explode narrative norms. It merely wants to poke its fingers at the fourth wall, testing its surface tension, while still including familiar nostalgia imagery from the original books. I imagine that fans of the original series will be clapping their hands in delight to see some of their favorite childhood monsters finally brought to life.
I just wish that, like The Cabin in the Woods, the film were scarier. Aside from a towering praying mantis, and, to a lesser degree, a snarling werewolf, there isn’t too much that is genuinely creepy about Goosebumps; for a film that is ostensibly horror for kids, it’s disappointingly low on fright. This is a movie that makes feints at fear, but only ends up being about as scary as The Monster Mash. Not that little kids need to see something dark and hard-edged – they can get enough of that accidentally catching scenes from The Walking Dead at home – but they can handle more than what Goosebumps gives them; picture something like Coraline or ParaNorman or Frankenweenie. Those films had a more appealing aesthetic, and some genuinely off-putting moments. Goosebumps is more a candy-coated Halloween confection. An adventure with monsters. A few moments of actual horror would have been nice. Although, perhaps I’m just a weird horror junkie who read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark too often.
Children deserve good horror stories, and every 7-year-old on the planet likes a good monster movie. Goosebumps will serve as a colorful, energetic, enjoyable, stop-gap for them until they’re ready for a PG-13 rating.