Review: Goosebumps does nostalgia right by mostly ignoring it

Memorable monsters are delightful to watch.

As someone who grew up reading every single Goosebumps book I could convince my mother to buy, there's an uncomfortable truth I've had to come to terms with as an adult: The Goosebumps books aren't very good. Even by young adult fiction standards, they're shallow stories; the protagonists are interchangeable, following the same arc in every book and mostly serving as background noise while some monstrous creation or another takes center stage.

It's only a matter of time before every horrifying creation is unleashed

But what incredible and memorable monsters they were. That is what kept eight-year-old Phil up all night reading these books under the covers.

For its first big screen adaption, Goosebumps could have gone more traditional. It could have told a single story from one of the books, or a new story following that same formula. Instead, director Rob Letterman and screenwriter Darren Lemke clearly saw the true value of Goosebumps as a brand. It's all about the monsters, as it should be.


That's not to say that Goosebumps ignores the human element altogether. The film stars Dylan Minnette as Zach, a teenager who has just moved from New York City to the tiny town of Madison, Delaware. A bored and lonely Zach quickly develops a crush on his next-door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush). As quickly as he expresses his interest, it's rebuffed — not by Hannah, but by her mysterious and controlling father, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black).

If you've watched a trailer for Goosebumps, you already know the early twist that the film hinges upon: that "Mr. Shivers" is actually R.L. Stine, the author of the Goosebumps books, and that he has become a shut-in to stop anyone from discovering his manuscripts, which have the power to unleash the very monsters he wrote about into the real world.

It is only a matter of time before every one of those manuscripts are opened and every horrifying creation from Stine's imagination is unleashed upon the world. With a brisk 100 minute running time, Goosebumps doesn't waste time getting to that good stuff, even as it defies the odds and turns the heroes into characters I actually cared about.

I also wasn't expecting to laugh out loud over and over again

I won't argue that Goosebumps is telling a brilliant or powerful story. I won't even try to say there's much more depth than the average book from the series it's based on. But within that simple formula, the film finds a lot of room for humanity and humor. Dylan Minnette deserves special praise as Zach. He brings a Joseph Gordon-Levitt-esque blend of handsomeness and quick-wittedness that turns an otherwise bland lead character into someone I found myself cheering for.


Likewise, Minnette's chemistry with Odeya Rush's Hannah is commendable. It's rare that I find younger actors in teenager roles cast into a romantic relationship that I find believable. These two pull it off, though, with a teasing flirtation that rang true. The film ruins Hannah's character in its final scenes, but she's great up until then.

The most surprising part of Goosebumps for me, though, was just how damn funny it is. Jack Black is perfect in his role as a crotchety, scenery-chewing R.L. Stine. Special props to the scene where someone compares Stine to Stephen King, and he flips out.

There's also an incredible list of hilarious supporting characters: Ken Marino as the romance-seeking gym coach, Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons as wildly inept small-town cops and Jillian Bell as Zach's weird aunt who has her own terrible fashion line. I wasn't expecting Goosebumps to be a truly terrifying movie — it's clearly going for a family-friendly audience — but I also wasn't expecting to laugh out loud over and over again. What a pleasant surprise.


As I mentioned, though, the real stars of Goosebumps are the monsters themselves. The horrific crew is led by the one who is probably Stine's most noteworthy creation: Slappy, an evil ventriloquist's dummy who debuted in 1993's Night of the Living Dummy. Slappy proves to be the perfect foil for Stine, forcing the author to think about the relationship between him and his creations.

(No surprise, then, that Slappy is voiced by Jack Black as well.)

In addition to Slappy, a number of monsters get a fair amount of screen time, including a giant praying mantis from A Shocker on Shock Street, a werewolf in gym shorts from The Werewolf of Fever Swamp and a group of homicidal garden decorations from Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes.

If you're a long-time fan of the series, like me, your mileage may vary as far as whether you think the right monsters got the appropriate amount of screen time. For my part, I wanted to see more of the creepy scarecrow from The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight and less of the generic zombies, who are so boring I can't even remember which book they're from.

"Delightful to watch" describes Goosebumps as a whole

Still, that's a minor complaint at best. Virtually every creature I can think of from the series gets at least a cameo. Shots that include a whole army of weird beasts will be a delight for finding hidden creatures once the film hits DVD. And the havoc that these creatures cause — especially the aforementioned giant praying mantis — is delightful to watch.

In fact, "delightful to watch" is something that applies to Goosebumps as a whole. I went into the film expecting an exercise in nostalgia. What other reason is there to resurrect a series that was popular in the ‘90s and hasn't really made a peep since then? But as confirmed by my date at the film, who had never read a Goosebumps book in her life, the movie doesn't get by on nostalgia alone. There's plenty of heart, humor and spectacle here for anyone to enjoy.