Thursday, 14 January 2016

Goosebumps (2016) - Movie Review

You want to talk nostalgic children’s horror franchises, you can’t get far without encountering something relating to Goosebumps. The house that R.L. Stine built, this over 20-year-old series was responsible for introducing whole generations of kids to the things that go bump in the night, either through the original novellas or the TV series. Well, not to go all Troy Steele here, and I certainly don’t wish to ape that asshole in any way, but I think the world has superglued its nostalgia goggles to its face when it comes to this series. When news first hit that this film was being made, with these people attached to it, people were already screaming “cop out”, “cash grab” and “BE-TRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYAL!”. Yeah, god forbid someone ruin the sanctity of stories where prune cookies turn people into senior citizens or the psychotic mayor of a model town that taunts a captive kid with a phantom baseball game.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these stories for their own reasons and I’ll even admit that both the books and the TV show could get legitimately scary at times like with The Haunted Mask and even My Best Friend Is Invisible; hell, the latter was what first convinced me to start up the now-dead Grey Vault review series because it still creeped me out so much. I just don’t think it should be held as this impenetrable bastion of quality in terms of family-friendly entertainment; this isn’t Avatar: The Last Airbender we’re talking about here. So, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at the film several years in the making. Readers beware, you’re in for a scare.

The plot: Zach (Dylan ‘#Blessed’ Minnette) and his mother (Amy Ryan) have just moved into the town of Madison, Delaware. He soon connects with the girl next door Hannah (Odeya Rush), but also comes in conflict with her reclusive father R.L. Stine (Jack Black). While sneaking around their house for evidence of him potentially abusing his daughter, Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee) discover a large collection of Goosebumps manuscripts, all of which are mysteriously locked. Once they start messing with the books, the monsters within come out to play and wreak havoc on the town. It’s up to the four of them to return them to their paper prisons before they do any more damage.

Given how this is starring Jack Black (something the trailers quite literally put first over the name of Goosebumps) and the director Rob Letterman was responsible for the absolute mockery of a ‘remake’ that is Gulliver’s Travels, I can safely say that I wasn’t looking forward to this one too highly. However, two particular credits gave off some ray of hope: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; the guys behind last year’s Big Eyes. Since thy wrote an original draft for the film, I’m guessing that the ‘Story By’ credit is in the same vein as Tarantino’s on Natural Born Killers. They have a very faithful and respectful approach to biographies about stranger-than-fiction people, and that’s kind of what this film takes the form of. R.L. Stine is depicted almost like a mad literary scientist which, oddly enough, Black manages to pull off in his own way. If anything, considering how goofy a lot of the Goosebumps stories actually are, Black does come across like the kind of guy who would come up with them anyway. The rest of the cast holds up pretty well too: Minnette is a solid lead as Zach, Rush plays manic pixie dream girl without making it too forced, Amy Ryan as Zach’s mother is goofy but in a fun way, and Champ actually manages to grow on the audience as the film goes on. He isn’t an absolute gem or anything, but he grows nonetheless.

What I particularly like about the metafiction aspect of this film is how many layers of the story it fills up on its own. We have the traditional aspect of characters in stories literally coming to life, we have some surprisingly well-delivered psychological drama involving Stine and the mindset that led him to create these monsters (as well as his relationship with Slappy the dummy) and then there’s how the town of Madison, Delaware is filled out. From the street-smart kids to the less-than-helpful adults to the atmosphere of the setting, right down to the opening hook of a first act, this feels like a Goosebumps tale from the off-set; almost like a deconstruction of the usual parameters Stine puts into his stories. It pokes fun at his writing tropes but it also does its best to channel the spirit of the original books, in that they’re meant to be the fun kind of spooky that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Given how it legitimately can get creepy in certain scenes, particularly those involving Slappy the dummy, and the comedy works out really well in places (and even when it bombs, it isn’t all that painful), I’d say that it did rather well.

What makes that attitude to the source material kind of unsettling is that, despite the trailers spelling out a lot of what happens later on in the film, the first act plays everything off like a domestic thriller: All Zach, and apparently the audience, know is that there is a creepy guy living next door who may be doing terrible things to his daughter. Jack Black is honestly kind of unnerving in his first scenes and there is legitimate tension to be found in it. It’s like Rear Window for kids, which kind of plays into the idea of Goosebumps as a whole being the gateway drug to more ‘traditional’ horror stories. And speaking of those stories, words cannot express how perfectly they used a reference to a particular Kubrick film near the end of this film. I won’t dare spoil it, but it makes the metafictional aspect of script and Stine’s characterisation feel even richer with its inclusion. Anyway, while the first act works pretty damn well at being a family-friendly suspense story, it would have been helped if the marketing didn’t spell out a lot of what came right after it; much like the books it’s based on, this film would’ve worked better if the twist wasn’t made crystal clear.

We’re dealing with Sony Pictures Animation for the monster effects, and it’s honestly a bit of a mixed bag. The effects on the werewolf and the abominable snowman are… eh, to put it generously, and some of the other background monsters look a bit off as well. However, that CGI sheen does end up helping a few of the creatures in the long run, like the giant praying mantis. Where this film hits its strides, however, is in the more practical looking monsters. The zombies look decent, that clown is going to give me Pennywise PTSD for the rest of the day after watching it and the dummy, thankfully, isn’t rendered in a computer. That last one worked out splendidly, since not only is he the main villain but the fact that he is tangible means that the confrontations between him and Stine have a lot more impact. Probably the best realisation would have to be the lawn gnomes: Everything from their facial expressions to their movements feels like these guys knew exactly what they were aiming for and hit it right on the head.

All in all, putting aside my long-running history with the Goosebumps franchise, I friggin’ loved this film. The writing delves into creative power with Stine’s character, working psychological drama and metafictional glory in with world-building that feels like both a parody and a tribute to the stories that Stine built his name on. The acting is solid, the score shows Elfman hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the more eerie sides of soundtracks, and the effects work ranges from passable to shockingly impressive. Given how wide-spread the appeal of the source material is, it should be an easy sell to suggest that those who were fortunate enough to grow up with these stories to check this movie out. Hell, even if you didn’t, this is still a very good dose of family-friendly comedic horror.

While it may hit a few hiccups in terms of jokes and plot (the relationship between Stine and his daughter could’ve been explained better in a few spots as well as her connection to the finale), it keeps a consistent standard throughout. I’m not expecting anyone else to connect with this film in the same way but, in all honesty, I’m not at the point of caring. I have Nicholas Sparks, Allegiant and Dawn Of Justice waiting for me over the next year; I’m going to take my enjoyment in terms of book adaptations where I can get them. This is the kind of Halloween-fuelled fun that Goosebumps made its name on; if you’re still in a position to appreciate that kind of entertainment, then I definitely recommend checking this out.

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