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1 review, 3 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Kids Unleash The Darndest Things"
3 stars

The trouble with "Goosebumps," the first big-screen iteration of the young adult book franchise that made author R.L. Stine the Stephen King of the tween set and inspired a long-running television series, is not that it is a flat-out awful movie. Hell, if it had just been terrible from start to finish, I could have easily dismissed it without a second thought and moved on. No, the problem is that it is a film that does contain a couple of good and ambitious ideas that might have been developed into something really unique and interesting in the right hands. Alas, that wasn't the case and whatever promise it might have contained is quickly squandered on an utterly anonymous orgy of indiscriminate action and visual effects that seems to have been designed specifically to disappoint moviegoers of all ages.

Over the years, Stine has written more than 100 "Goosebumps" tales but instead of opting to bring one of them to the big screen, the filmmakers have instead elected to come up with an original story--an inspired idea if it turns out to be a worthy tale and somewhat less so if it doesn't. This one begins as teenaged Zach (Dylan Minnette) is moving with his recently widowed mother (Amy Ryan) from the hustle and bustle of New York to Madison, Delaware where they can live near his Bedazzler-happy, man-hungry aunt (). It sounds like a nightmare but there is one compensation in the form of Hannah (Odeya Rush), the cute girl next door. Alas, she has a wildly overprotective father (Jack Black) who forbids him from even speaking to her. One night, Zach sort-of witnesses a father-daughter fight and calls the cops but when they arrive, the father announces that Hannah went out of town the day before. Having presumably seen "Rear Window" (or at least "Disturbia"), Zach senses that something is up and when he knows that Hannah's father is gone, he and dorky new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak into her house to investigate, continuing on even when they discover that the floor of the basement has been lined with bear traps.

As it turns out, bear traps are the least of the worries inside the house when they uncover what appears to be the original manuscripts of every "Goosebumps" story, each one locked up tight. One of them, "The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena," is inadvertently opened and lo and behold, the Abominable Snowman pops out and tears up the house before racing out into the night with Zach, Hannah--who was still there--and Champ pursuing him to the local ice rink. At the ta-daa nick of time, Hannah's dad arrives and manages to suck the creature back into the book. It turns out that Dad is none other than R.L. Stine himself and that, thanks to his feverish imagination and a magical/cursed typewriter, his creatures are real things that he is able to keep under control only by keeping their respective manuscripts locked away tight. Alas, in all the chaos, another one of his creations, the fiendish ventriloquists dummy Slappy (also voiced by Black), gets loose and decides to get revenge on his creator by unleashing all of his creatures at once and then destroying the manuscripts so that they cannot be captured. As a result, Madison is overrun by vampire poodles, a wolfman, aliens with freeze rays and many more bizarre entities and Stine and the kids have to figure out a way to get them under control before all is lost.

Like I said, the idea of a "Goosebumps" movie is not necessarily a bad one and done correctly, it might have served as a contemporary equivalent of the films that Steven Spielberg used to produce in the 1980s through his Amblin Entertainment production shingle such as the original "Gremlins." That film, you will recall, worked because director Joe Dante made it with a lot of skill and kidding affection towards old monster movies but at the same time, he lent it just the right amount of genuine danger and menace to give kids a few delicious frights while sending their parents into absolute apoplexy. Unfortunately, "Goosebumps" makes two enormous conceptual mistakes right from the start that all but hobble the film from the get-go. The biggest by far is the weird decision to turn the story into some kind of all-star monster mash instead of focusing on one particular creature. This probably sounded like a good idea in the pitch meeting but it doesn't come off because outside of a couple of the monsters like Slappy, most of them barely make an impression and the sheer overload becomes more aggravating than entertaining after a while. The other problem is that none of the monsters on display are particularly scary--not even when seen through the eyes of all but the youngest audience members--and as a result, there is a noticeable lack of tension to the proceedings. Now I know fully well that a film aimed at the family audience is not going to go the full-throttle horror route but surely a happy medium could have been found that would have given kids a few chills and the film some actual stakes.

One thing that actually does kind of work in the film, oddly enough, is the surprisingly effective performance by Jack Black. I say "surprisingly" because although he can be as engaging of a screen personality as one could possibly hope, I am not exactly telling tales out of school when I mention that he does have a tendency to suck up all the oxygen in the room (not to mention adjacent countrysides) with performances that sometimes begin with the dial at "over the top" and accelerate from there. Perhaps realizing that there was no way that he, even at his most manic, could possibly hope to outdo dozens of havoc-wreaking creatures jostling for screen space, he has instead elected to go in the opposite direction with an endearingly low-key turn that, appropriately enough considering the holiday, he seems to have modeled directly on the "War of the Worlds"-era Orson Welles. As for his fellow cast members, the kids are all pleasant and well-scrubbed but display so little personality that it is difficult to focus on them even when they are the only people on the screen. As for Amy Ryan, the only thing to say is that if this excellent actress deliberately set out to find a role that would waste her talents to an even greater degree than her equally throwaway part in "Bridge of Spies," she clearly succeeded.

"Goosebumps" isn't awful by any stretch of the imagination--you don't stagger away from it feeling poleaxed and wondering what the hell happened, as you did after "Pan"--and there are times when it comes tantalizingly close to actually working. Unfortunately, the lack of any real purpose, a single dedicated terror to focus on and any actual scares, even of the PG variety, pretty much doom it to a level of general innocuousness from which it never manages to recover. Instead, you would be much better off taking the ticket money and using it to buy a number of the actual "Goosebumps" for your kids so that they can read what they would otherwise be missing.

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originally posted: 10/16/15 09:34:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/10/15 paul carter loved it. 4 stars
10/31/15 mike miller not bad 4 stars
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