The problem with moving into a new house is you never know what the neighbors are going to be like. Sometimes they're nice. Sometimes not so nice.
Sometimes … both.
High schooler Zach Cooper isn't thrilled about moving with his mom, Gail, from New York City to miniscule Madison, Del., after his father's death. But Mom thinks the change of pace will do them good, and she's already getting geared up for her new job as Madison High School's vice principal.
And Zach's dour assessment of the somnolent hamlet brightens the moment he meets his next-door neighbor, Hannah. She's a precocious teen who's instantly as into him as he is into her.
Then … there's her dad.
Mr. Shivers' instructions to Zach couldn't be more clear: "Do you see the fence?" he bellows. "Stay on your side of it. Stay away from my daughter."
Maybe Zach would have. Had he not heard the man yelling at Hannah, that is. And when a call to police fails to straighten things out to Zach's satisfaction, the impetuous teen takes matters into his own hands.
Zach and a new friend, insta-wingman Champ (who's anything but a winner), sneak into the house to make sure Hannah's OK. She is. But they don't make that discovery until after they make another one: A huge bookcase in Mr. Shivers' house is filled with locked manuscripts of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps stories. Dozens and dozens of 'em. Books like The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight and The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, among many, many others.
And then they find a key. Even as Champ wonders aloud if Mr. Shivers might, in fact, be R.L. Stine himself, Zach unlocks the latter book. Just like that, a big, angry, hungry Abominable Snowman pops out.
Hannah shows up just in time to tell the guys they've made a massive mistake. The only way to capture the despicable beast, she says, is to suck him back into the story he came out of by getting very close to him with the open book.
Capturing one seriously grumpy Abominable Snowman would be a daunting enough task ("I read what it did to Pasadena," Champ quivers. "It's no joke, man"), but things get exponentially more complicated when said rampaging Snowman knocks over the bookcase holding the manuscripts on his way through the wall, unleashing a myriad of nasty nemeses straight from Stine's imagination.
By the time the horrified horror author returns home (yep, it really is him), his nightmarish creations—the devilish Slappy the Dummy, aliens wielding freeze rays, a phalanx of smiling-but-vicious gnomes, a horde of zombies, a gargantuan praying mantis and a slobbering werewolf, for instance—have begun to lay waste to unsuspecting Madison.
All our heroes have to do now is force those beasties back into their books. Against their will.
Zach is instantly smitten with Hannah. So when he hears the girl and her dad having what sounds like a violent argument, he wants to defend her. Zach's impulse to make sure Hannah's OK after the police visit is a noble one, then, even if his decision to break into her house isn't.
Once the Abominable Snowman gets loose, Zach, Hannah and Champ do everything they can to corral the mythical misbehaver. And when the rest of the crafty creatures get loose, the four main characters (joined to some extent by Gail's slightly loopy sister, Lorraine) hatch a desperate-but-brave plan to contain the horde of horrors.
Several tender themes emerge by the conclusion. We learn that R.L. Stine has had problems interacting with real people since he was an adolescent, and he admits that he needs to spend less time in his fictional fantasy world and more time in the real one. (He eventually becomes a high school English teacher). Stine and Zach develop a kinship as well, with Stine (it's suggested) becoming a father figure in the absence of Zach's deceased dad.
The magical backstory for the monstrous shenanigans in Goosebumps goes like this: R.L. Stine tells his young friends and daughter that as an adolescent, he was the victim of bullies who mocked him. R.L. responded by writing about all manner of horrible creatures wreaking their revenge on his teen tormentors. "Monsters, demons, ghouls," he says, "terrorized my neighborhood. Eventually they became real to me." And through some unspecified magical means, one day they started crawling right out of Stine's writing. "My monsters literally leaped off the page," he says.
At that point, he realized he had to contain them, and his life since then has involved making sure none of his dastardly droolers get loose. [Spoiler Warning] It turns out that Hannah is also one of Stine's characters, someone he wrote into a novel and allowed to enter the real world so he could have some companionship.
Later, Stine adds that the supernatural occurrences have something to do with the old Smith Corona typewriter he uses. It's a "magical typewriter," he says, one that "has a soul of its own." Indeed, that magical typewriter goes on to play an important role in combating the creatures rampaging through Madison.
Lorraine says, "I should listen to my psychic: Stop dating losers and never go on a plane." Characters exclaim "Thank God" several times.
After Zach and Champ meet at a school assembly, Champ asks if Zach wants to go to the dance with him—then clarifies quickly, "Not like together together." Obviously, Champ's girl-crazy throughout, and his adolescent ardor is rewarded with a kiss from a popular girl (who's wearing a cleavage-baring dress) whom he saves from a werewolf. Zach and Hannah briefly kiss twice.
Lorraine, meanwhile, is on a mission to find a man. At one point she says of a guy, "Is he handsome? Is he single? Is he thinking about leaving his wife and needs a push?" Also, someone mistakenly confuses the word audiophile with pedophile. A teacher keeps hitting (albeit benignly) on Zach's mom.
Once the Abominable Snowman gets loose, Goosebumps is a mildly scary Halloween-themed ride the rest of the way. Sir Snowman busts out of Stine's house and does a number on an ice rink's scoreboard, a Zamboni and a vending machine. He chases after the three teens, too, pursuing and swiping at them with simian strength.
A ginormous praying mantis bats at school buses and the school building itself, snatching a boy through a window. (We later see the lad in a neck brace.) A snarling werewolf chases our heroes through a grocery store … before Champ sends the gym-shorts-wearing wolfman howling away by biting him with his silver fillings. The lycanthrope also gets clocked by Lorraine's truck.
The humans take on a horde of crazed ceramic gnomes, smashing them again and again and again while dodging their wickedly hurled projectiles. Gnomes also fall prey to a gauntlet of bear traps in Stine's basement. Other "casualties" include many (if not most) of the townspeople getting frozen (but not killed) by aliens. A shortcut through a cemetery awakens a phalanx of half-decomposed zombies. A demonically red-eyed (and levitating) poodle terrifies Lorraine.
Slappy slams a typewriter case closed on Stine's fingers, breaking (the author says) most of them. And all of the monsters, under the direction of Slappy, ultimately converge upon a high school dance, sending students running for cover, with a few trying to hold them at bay until Stine and Co. can figure out a way to vanquish their foes. A frenetic finale includes explosions, a massively oozing blob and an unmoored Ferris wheel rolling through a forest—with Zach, Hannah and Champ still onboard.
Crude or Profane Language
One use of "h---." Ten or so misuses of God's name, two of "oh my gosh." R.L. dubs Champ an "imbecile."
Drug and Alcohol Content
None. But someone says of Zach, "That kid's on drugs."
Other Negative Elements
There are several jokes about Stine's body odor. A student passes gas loudly. We see someone picking his nose and hear a corresponding joke about the "boogieman."
I had mixed expectations going into Goosebumps. R.L. Stine's mega-franchise is massively popular, having sold more than 400 million copies, according to his onscreen doppelgänger, played by Jack Black. But introducing young 'uns to supernatural horror-lite has never struck me as the best idea. And plenty of other concerned parents have felt the same way over the years, sometimes even pushing Stine's tomb-minded tomes onto banned-book lists in libraries.
What we get onscreen does end up meeting those mixed expectations. On the troubling side of things, there's a lot of supernatural mischief and mayhem. There's talk of ghouls and demons. Go-to horror heavyweights like clowns and dummies and werewolves get screen time. Close-ups of a snarling werewolf, especially, seem worthy of mention as images that could easily leave young viewers concerned about turning out the lights when families get home from the Cineplex.
But it's only fair to say that Goosebumps resides not in an occult-minded plane, but rather in a darkish fairy-tale land, albeit with a kitschy 1950s-style horror shtick. We're in Jumanji and Once Upon a Time territory here. It's not The Little Mermaid, but it's certainly close to Sleeping Beauty.
On top of that, Goosebumps is as much screwball comedy as it is tween horror. It's as funny as it is perilous, wearing its lighthearted zaniness on its sleeve. No one dies. The werewolf runs away when he gets chomped on by a nerd with silver teeth. The gnomes are never really scary, not even when they're hurling knives. In 2012, Slate writer Katy Waldman characterized the books themselves similarly, writing, "Classic Goosebumps: funny, icky, and just a bit menacing." Their purpose, she argues, is "provoking and assuaging fear all at the same time."
That's certainly more than you can say about the Brothers Grimm. And the movie hews to the same vibe. A handful of jump scenes might have very young moviegoers surging backward in their chairs. But in the end, you know everything is going to turn out all right, just like those children's movies back in the '70s or '80s before everything was about how graphic you could go and still toss it to kids.
Jack Black said in a roundtable interview that Plugged In attended, "R.L. Stine's recommendation was that we stay mindful of the audience. It's OK to scare, but not to traumatize. So there's no blood, for instance. And I have kids, a 7- and a 9-year-old, and they loved it."
So is it all in good fun then? Will your kids "love it" too? Does the film's emphasis on developing relationships in the real world instead of fleeing to dark fantasy offset the presence of those unearthly villains?
Well, I did find myself enjoying Goosebumps more than I expected to as a 45-year-old father of three. But I'm not as sanguine as the film's star regarding the appropriate age to see a movie like Goosebumps.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jack Black as Mr. Shivers/R.L. Stine; Dylan Minnette as Zach Cooper; Amy Ryan as Gail Cooper; Odeya Rush as Hannah; Ryan Lee as Champ; Jillian Bell as Lorraine; Halston Sage as Taylor
Sony / Columbia
October 16, 2015
January 26, 2016