Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A shocker on shock street


Zippy and weird, Goosebumps is every bit as great as you could ever hope a family-friendly horror-comedy based on 62 individual books to possibly be—and, heck, now that I spell it out like that, I suppose it's actually even better.

Directed by Rob Letterman
Written by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski (based on the books by R.L. Stine)
With Dylan Minnette (Zach), Amy Smart (Gale), Jillian Bell (Lorraine), Odeya Rush (Hannah), Ryan Lee (Champion), and Jack Black (R.L. Stine)

Spoiler alert: moderate, bordering on high

First off, while Goosebumps is possibly the best kid's adventure fantasy made in almost three decades, this actually only means "it's better than Super 8," so don't assume I'm claiming that it's a religious experience.  However, it is the perfect cure for the Post-2015 Blues: having lived through a year where nearly everything was disappointing, it's a delightful surprise indeed to find a movie that actually exceeded my expectations for a change.

And even so, it has to be said: there's an even stronger version of Goosegumps—verging on the insanely great—that doesn't opt quite so wholeheartedly for its brand of comfortable conventionality, and doesn't leave its most tantalizing callback to the actual Goosebumps book series in what amounts to a subplot.  It could've managed this masterstroke simply by reframing its focus: either pushing its designated teen male protagonist Zach to the margins—or just cutting him out of the picture whole.

This isn't because Zach's a dude; it's not because Dylan Minette is remotely bad; heck, it's not even because Goosebumps has almost no ambitions for itself beyond recapitulating Joe Dante's own masculine coming-of-age adventure, Gremlins, while the few ambitions it does have all revolve around how to fit the metafictional complication of its adult co-protagonist, Goosebumps' real-life creator R.L. Stine, into its hokey generic structure—which it does, primarily, by inverting Tom Holland's masculine coming-of-age adventure, Fright Night.  Oh, sure: you could easily call Goosebumps out for its wretched sexism, and it would have no serious defense—certainly not when it's as guilty as any recent film of depriving its sole major female character of even the tiniest bit of agency, and then tossing her upon the barely-metaphorical pyre.  But then, the film's other big "problem," its rampant genericism, tends to cancel that right out: because if you can identify more than the most microscopic traces of "agency" accruing to any character in this movie—which spends every last second of its whole runtime walking an invisibly fine line between legitimate 80s-style kid's adventure and straight-up automatic parody—well then, my feathered friend, you've got to have superpowers.  The reasons that Hannah—Goosebumps' iteration of The Girl—should have been moved forward may well align with progressive politics, but only incidentally.

So instead, let's keep it strictly on the level of mechanical narrative, the level upon which Goosebumps clearly wants to be judged: it's because, in comparison to Zach (who himself is surely not much better-defined than The Boy), Hannah is just much, much more interesting.  She's so terrifyingly interesting, in fact, that she almost breaks the film over her knee, leaving so many disturbing questions in her wake that it's honestly hard to square the pure joy of Goosebumps, the experience, with the skeevy horror that Goosebumps, the weirdly sloppy scenario, ultimately becomes.  But, since I can say no more without completely ruining it, let's jump instead to Goosebumps' plot—and usually I'd say, "Stop me if you'd heard this one before," but if you did that here, I wouldn't even be able get past the first sentence.

Zach Cooper's dad died a while back, and although he's plenty sad about it, it's also left his household with a giant hole where an income used to be.  Thus his mom Gale has decided to up sticks, moving her family from New York, New York, to the sleepy suburbs of Madison, Delaware—which her sneering son compares unfavorably to Guantanamo (where people are tortured), North Korea (where people are eaten), and Detroit (where people are black, I guess, and perhaps the most charitable interpretation of this joke is that Zach finds it off-putting that Madison's own African-American population can be numbered in the single digits).  Anyway, as long as you aren't too upset about living in what looks like America after the Klan, it seems like a pretty nice place, and Gale's new gig as a vice-principal has afforded them an amazingly huge new home which she notes is about eight or nine times larger than their urban shitbox in NYC.  Zach, naturally, remains unfussed about their huge tracts of counterspace—but he's much happier when he meets his next-door neighbor, Hannah, who takes a shine to the new kid on the block and leads him to her secret spot in the woods, the site of an abandoned (yet strangely functional) amusement park.  Daring him to climb up the rusty remains of the ferris wheel, it's a beautiful little scene she's set for him—and, frankly, it's testament to his bad big city manners that he doesn't put out.

Of course, we're watching Goosebumps, and not some show about a creek, and things go disastrously awry when Zach meets Hannah's dad, an overprotective sort whose admonitions quickly surpass the standard for "criminal threat."  Thus, when Zach overhears a loud fight between the daughter and father, and later Hannah seems to have up and disappeared, he enlists his uncool new friend, named Champion (yes, really, and yet Goosebumps manages to get an incredible amount of blood from this stone of a gag) to Rear Window the old man, and figure out what's really going on.  That's how they find the stockpile of manuscripts, which nerdy Champ identifies as R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series; and it's also how they open one of the locked books, from which immediately steps an abominable snowman, at roughly the same moment that Hannah reappears, discovering two idiot teenagers rampaging through her dad's stuff, and without even a breath to explain what's happening.  We know what's happening, though—and soon enough Hannah's father re-enters the picture.  In the process of cleaning up their mess, he reveals what we already would've figured out even if it weren't the major premise of the film: he is R.L. Stine, and (much more importantly) the Goosebumps manuscripts aren't just books, they're prisons for the monsters from Stine's reality-warping id.

Yeah, it's exactly like that.

Ordinarily, Stine would simply take his daughter, change identities, and move to another town, but while they were chasing the yeti, something even worse has managed to break free of his young-adult cage—Slappy himself, whom you no doubt recall from The Night of the Living Dummy.  Slappy's freed all the other beasties of Stine's imagination, too—and burned the books.  This isn't good news for Madison, Delaware, and now it's up to Stine, Zach, Hannah, and Champ to save the town from Slappy's rampaging horde of horrors.  And, hey, I told you it was like Gremlins, even if you might not have guessed it was Gremlins cross-pollinated with In the Mouth of Madness.

The thing is, it works: there's a moment early on when it looks very much like Goosebumps is going to turn into a repetitive, vignettish slog, concerned entirely with sucking each monster one-by-one back into its respective manuscript.  Slappy's Fahrenheit 451 tactics dispense with this glum prospect, and  Goosebumps becomes an extraordinarily focused quest, with Zach and Stine devising a plan that can vanquish all of the monsters all at once, then getting their shit together to accomplish this plan, all while Slappy throws amusing and thrilling obstacles in their way.

But the construction of a fleet narrative, while essential, isn't close to the best thing which Goosebumps does—for the best thing it does is simply to be completely ridiculous, punching up its cast of acknowledged stereotypes with such flair that it grants the film the kind of delirious, off-center energy you always desire but almost never actually see in a children's programmer like this.  Goosebumps manages to surprise, in part, because it's so unexpectedly replete with cliche.  (But just to name one of its most clever aspects, since it's emblematic of how these characters get filled up with what amounts to superfluous detail, there's a real willingness to take some ultimately good-natured but nonetheless surprisingly-sharp pokes at Stine himself—notably the film's invention of the author's fierce envy of Stephen King.)  Director Rob Letterman, meanwhile, largely keeps himself out the way—the journeyman ends up with a film that looks like CinemaScope on TV, but given the Goosebumps' franchise's history, it certainly feels right.  His real contribution is a breakneck pace matched with a remarkable knack for tone.

Yet it's entirely possible that Goosebumps wouldn't work one bit without the exact cast it actually has—individually, every last one of them is doing God's work, selling the hell out of every joke, from the legitimately good to the deliberately bad.  Since I have neither the space nor patience to list everybody indivudally, that leaves us with good old Jack Black, a divisive figure if there ever was one.  But he's always at his best when constrained by some kind of extrinsic narrative, whether it's merely as the agent of chaos in someone else's story, like in Orange County, or as a character whose Blackian "quirks" are intended to be read as severe flaws, like in King Kong.  Well, Goosebumps has enough of a plot to bind Black fully to the story, and though reasonable minds can clearly differ, I aver that he's absolutely at his best here.  Delivering an outright oddity of a performance, Black must be the single most unique and priceless thing Goosebumps has on offer, and the best way I can think of to even describe his work, beyond the phrase "flabbergasting super-camp," is that it's like an impersonation of a famous 1950s B-horror actor who never actually existed outside of Black's imagination.  Yet that's not even all there is to it: by some miracle, Black manages to ground the more serious turns of this story in something just human enough that you won't start asking any of the really difficult questions about what the hell you just saw till the credits are rolling.  And, considering that Goosebumps is built upon some seriously suspect foundations in this regard, what else is there to call it but a great performance?  (And Black further provides the voice for Slappy, which pleases me all the more.)

As for the horror aspect of this horror-comedy, it's largely nonexistent—but, then, if you can name a horror-comedy that's scary, but isn't also named Evil Dead 2 or Ghostbusters, you're probably lying.  A scary Goosebumps, even on the level of its own source material, was never in the cards; yet even by these reduced terms, Goosebumps is still a (mild) letdown, constitutionally unwilling to go anywhere the littlest bit genuinely dark—at least not on purpose, anyway.  For example, did anyone really need the insert shot in the epilogue, letting us know that the kid that seemingly got eaten by the awesome giant praying mantis actually survived?  Who is that even for?  The smallest children in the audience, who wouldn't be able to connect these two pieces in the first place?  (In an even worse misstep, Letterman's rendition of Stine's rip-off of The Blob is just unbelievably lame, even in the very moment that it's supposed to be the most threatening thing in the world—and this is especially the case when you just can't watch Goosebumps without those horror classics of the '50s and '80s constantly whispering words of discouragement in your ear.)  And yet I've gotta say: I find it hard to get too mad at a film that's so clearly trying to be a cartoon that Sony Pictures Animation gets a pre-film logo drop alongisde Sony's wholly-owned live-action branch, Columbia.

Indeed, whatever Goosebumps might not be (remotely frightening, ballsy enough to not pull its heftiest punches, or even effectively creepy in any scene without a ventriloquist's dummy, which, honestly, doesn't really count anyway)—well, you did catch that part where I mentioned the "giant praying mantis," right?  Goosebumps represents the best cinematic representation of a giant praying mantis ever.  In my book, that'd be something to celebrate even if Goosebumps had brought literally nothing else to the table but a great giant mantis.  The wonder of it is, it brings so much more.  Oh, it's a frivolous thing—perhaps too frivolous—but it's fun, it's manic, and it's strangely earnest when it needs to be, too.  In other words, it's just the way I like 'em.

Score:  8/10


  1. Regardless of certain individuals' differing opinions about a certain rhyming-named actor, I'm so glad you enjoyed Goosebumps! It was almost absurdly refreshing, especially considering how structurally generic it was. I can always trust you to be fair toward weird little genre movies. Much respect, Hunter.

    Also, I can see that you haven't quite shaken your John Carpenter phase yet. This may be the only Goosebumps review in history that references In the Mouth of Madness.

    1. Tim Brayton mentioned New Nightmare, which is probably far more apt on a basic conceptual level, but, you know, Goosebumps is about books. (Plus, I don't have anywhere near the same appreciation for NN as you two guys do.)

      Anyway, now that I've seen it too, I'm actually really surprised by your warmth toward Goosebumps. I mean, it seems that if you're not totally down with what Jack Black is doing here, then what he's doing would get real obnoxious really quickly. I mean, I loved it, but I tend to love unbalanced performances centered around funny voices (see also, JGL in The Walk, Ben Stiller in Zoolander, the entire career of Tom Hardy).