Sunday, 4 November 2018

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: While searching an abandoned house, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris) find a mysterious book with a lock on it that was apparently written by R. L. Stine. When they open it, they discover the ventriloquist dummy Slappy (Mick Wingert) who uses his magical powers to help the boys around the house... at first. It seems that Slappy is up to his old tricks, and he's planning to make this Halloween far scarier than anyone in the town would have expected, and it's up to Sonny, Sam and Sonny's sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) to stop him.

Ready to miss Jack Black more than you ever thought you’d have reason to? Let’s get into the cast list for this thing because this is a whole bunch of subpar woefulness. Iseman as what is ostensibly our main lead is quite bland, not to mention out of place considering how much of her character stays stuck in a myriad of high school melodrama cliché. I see director Ari Sandel hasn’t quite gotten past The DUFF yet.

Taylor and Harris are basically playing tokens here, that being the bullied nerd and the comic relief best friend respectively, and while they do well enough to keep above the baseline, they still don’t make for anything all that compelling to sit through. Then again, all three of them turn out far better than Wendi McLendon-Covey as Sonny and Sarah’s mother, whose performance is so wooden that she might even give some of the stiffer moments from the original TV show a run for their money. Chris Parnell appears for a bit and is largely wasted, Wingert as the voice of Slappy does okay with what he’s given, and Ken Jeong as the next-door neighbour… ugh. Between the typically grating performance and the equally irritating characterisation, it’s not a good start when it becomes clear that this is how the film views fans of the source material.

We’re dealing with Sony Pictures Animation once again, and it’s certainly more of a mixed bag than we got the first time around. It’s not so much that the animation quality itself is lesser, as it’s honestly about on par with what we’ve seen from this studio before, but rather the range of creativity in its use is lesser. There’s a couple of decent ideas being thrown around, like the plastic Halloween decorations turning into real threats or the scene where the leads are attacked by giant gummi bears, but for the most part, we’re given pretty stock Halloween imagery to supposedly give us the willies. Witches, ogres, a giant spider (made out of balloons, admittedly, but it’s far less impressive than it sounds), not to mention the inclusion of figures like Dracula; all that paper devoted to the works of R.L. Stine, and yet aside from the more popular characters from the first film like the Abominable Snowman and Slappy, there’s not much representation of that canon here. Because of this, there’s this unfortunate generic sheen over a lot of the production, as if this could’ve skated by without the Goosebumps name attached to it with little to no real change.

Okay, tell a lie, there are definite traces of Goosebumps to be found here; namely, that this is essentially the same story as the first film in the most basic terms possible: A ventriloquist dummy comes to life, he causes other things to come to life and terrorise people, the heroes need a book to save everyone. The story here is embarrassingly plain, sticking mainly to Slappy’s antics but the antics aren’t even all that good. Watching a sentient puppet playing Rocket League with two school kids isn’t exactly gripping material, but honestly, that might be the out-of-the-box this film gets for any length of time.

I specified that this is the first film at its most basic because there really isn’t anything else to it outside of rehashing the main plot. Nothing that comes across as all that scary, even for Halloween horror, nothing that ends up being all that funny, and nothing that gives this that needed bite that made the original turn out so damn well. The closest we get to that is with the brief reappearance of Jack Black as R.L. Stine, and with only a combined five-minutes-tops of screen time, he manages to bring more writerly titbits and honestly kind of interesting ideas that anything else here. If the new characters had anything interesting to them, or if the script kept with the original’s knack for paying homage and lightly ribbing Stine’s works in turn, or even if it kept up with some of the more metatextual touches, maybe the new, thin coat of paint on the same idea could’ve sufficed. Then again, this is all coming from the writer who gave us Peter Rabbit earlier this year; I can’t say I’m too surprised that his characterisation isn’t exactly impressive. Or even all that watchable.

So, the comedy’s lame, the horror even more so, and the story is just a shell of the film that this is trying to follow up from; is there anything that this has going for it? In the vaguest of senses, maybe, but it’s not as if the film takes time to give some of the more miscellaneous parts of the narrative any staying power. Like how Slappy’s plan banks on accessing a tower that used to belong to Nikola Tesla, a bout of pointlessness that I’m sure will make the ghost of Alexander Graham Bell quite happy. Or there’s the sudden motive for Slappy that he needs a mother, in what might be the most half-arsed villain motivation I’ve seen all year.

Then there’s the aforementioned high school melodrama, which only barely passes on occasion due to including school bullies (which, cliched as it is, is part of the Goosebumps style) but largely feels like these people forgot who the demographic for these films even were. Yeah, I’m an grown-ass adult writing that, so I get the irony, but there’s appealing to a diverse audience and then there’s blindly trying to grab onto anyone in attendance through sheer luck. Or there’s the most disheartening part, the ending, which includes sequel-bait that feels like we’re being tempted with the film we should have gotten here, only I doubt even the potential in the idea presented is worth bringing this series back for a third round. Especially if the people involved can’t even be bothered to make it interesting.

All in all, this is an exceptionally blatant cash-in of a sequel, only maintaining the barest minimum of what made the original work while jettisoning all of the really interesting parts. The acting ranges from passable to outright bad, the effects work shows a saddening lack of creativity in bringing monsters to life, and the writing is so plain that only a scant few minutes of Jack Black returning manage to outshine everything else in this 90-minute film. This is basically what I, and quite a few others, were worried we’d end up getting with the first film, except that one showed more than enough ingenuity and even some legitimate smarts to make it work. Here, it’s just a shallow excuse for storytelling, one that makes me miss stories about children being turned into chickens for being slightly rude. Like I said two years ago, the Goosebumps stories aren’t all perfect, but man, do they deserve better treatment than this.

It ranks lower than Hunter Killer, which also had a prevailing feeling of boredom attached to it but at least its story could make it into an interesting political artefact a few years down the road. Maybe. It’s certainly a lot more than Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has going for it, to the point where if it had no connection to Goosebumps, it might’ve been slightly less disappointing. However, as bad as this ultimately, it still doesn’t reek as badly of raw apathy as Night School.

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