Goosebumps struggles to find an audience

tim-freborgGoosebumps is, without a doubt, the best and most competent horror movie to come out this Halloween season. In many respects this fact is both hilarious and extremely depressing, but considering that the film’s biggest box office competition is the tired Paranormal Activity rehash, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising.

Goosebumps, a series of children’s novels written by author R.L. Stine, is not exactly an unknown franchise. Wildly popular in the late 90s and early 2000s, the stories were loved by young readers and often served to invite them into the horror genre.

Unlike other popular series of the moment, like Harry Potter, however, time was not quite as kind to Stine’s work, which quickly fell out of the public eye once publication ceased.

The original audience that read Stine’s stories is now college-aged, and at long last a film adaptation of these childhood favorites is hitting the big screen.

Directed by Rob Letterman, the film utilizes a metafictive, throwback approach, bringing many of Stine’s creations to life on screen. From yetis to crazed puppets, the film creates a sort of twisted, Avengers-esque homage to our favorite childhood nightmares.

Courtesy of VAGUEONTHEHOW/ CC-BY-2.0 Jack Black plays the character R.L. Stine, author of the popular children’s book series, Goosebumps.

Courtesy of VAGUEONTHEHOW/ CC-BY-2.0
Jack Black plays the character R.L. Stine, author of the popular children’s book series, Goosebumps.

That being said, these stories were never well-known for their depth or intricacies, and in fact many were left behind in one’s grade school days. How, moving beyond nostalgic appeal, can a movie like this hold up when viewed with older, modern eyes?

The film opens on main character Zach Cooper as he becomes fascinated with his curiously reclusive and standoffish neighbors, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) and his daughter Hannah. One night, after a scream resonates from the Shivers household, Zach and his friend Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak into their neighbor’s home only to discover a terrifying secret: The home is filled with books, which, when opened, are capable of releasing horrifying creatures into the world.

As more and more beasts escape their imprisonment, Zach, his friends and his neighbors must find a way to rein in the chaos. Through these efforts come the answers to the questions: Who are his neighbors, and why do they have these books in the first place?

The story itself functions just fine as a piece of metafiction. In fact its twist and incorporation of the series license is actually far more clever than one might initially assume.

The film is able to draw on monsters and characters scattered across the entirety of the series. This creates an incredibly unique and diverse cast of all sorts of creepy ghouls of the night. For someone who grew up reading a lot of these stories as a child, there is certainly a lot of nostalgia to be found during the film’s hundred-minute runtime.

That being said, the nostalgia factor is the only substantial appeal the film really has going for it, and that’s the unfortunate aspect of the film’s existence. Being based on a series clearly targeted at younger audiences, it’s only natural that the film carries that same childlike allure. Its primary demographic is young. However, the series upon which the film is based is now nearly a decade old, and its audience has aged with it.

Who, then, should the film target? Is it more beneficial to aim young and bring in the current generation of children, or aim high and appeal to the nostalgia of those who were fans at the apex of the series’ popularity?

Unfortunately this film doesn’t quite know which side to take, making it difficult to tell for whom precisely the film is made. Its writing errs on the side of being too safe and childish to capture older audiences while its characters, settings and set pieces are clearly selected in an attempt to appeal to a more observant, older audience.

These confusions are intensified by the film’s pacing, which rushes audiences from monster to monster and action scene to action scene so quickly and jarringly that it’s surprisingly difficult to keep the plot details straight.

Jack Black, in an admittedly admirable performance (especially when one considers that his performances in children’s films have not historically been of the highest quality), attempts to keep the film grounded. However, his performance alone is insufficient to keep the film on track.

The end result? A confused, scattered and rushed story that seems not to fully understand whom it is meant for.

Make no mistake, despite these numerous complaints Goosebumps is a harmless and arguably decent film, especially for younger audiences. There’s very little that is outright bad about the film, and it certainly does have several nostalgic trips for anyone itching to see some of their favorite Stine monsters come to life.

What the film lacks is focus, both in concept and execution. Had the film dedicated a bit more time to developing its plot and fleshing out individual characters, monsters and concepts, then this could have joined the likes of Pixar films as a shining example of cinema targeted at all ages. In its current form, this is just not Toy Story. Best to leave this one to the kids.

Overall rating: 5/10

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