Goosebumps, based on the popular children’s novels by RL Stine, could have so easily been terrible. As it happens it is a good notch above average, thanks to a witty screenplay by Darren Lemke, who plays the risky “meta” card with just about enough wit to get away with it.
The plot isn’t based on any one Goosebumps novel, but instead invents a story involving all of them. Recently bereaved teen Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves to the small town of Madison, Delaware with his mother (Amy Ryan), in an attempt to start a new life. He strikes up a friendship with girl-next-door Hannah (Odeya Rush), only to be told by her mysteriously overbearing father (Jack Black) that he should stay away from her and their house. Of course, circumstances are contrived for Zach to ignore this warning. As a result he subsequently discovers that Hannah’s father is in fact RL Stine (here’s the “meta” card I mentioned earlier), and that his typewritten Goosebumps originals will unleash real monsters in the world if unlocked. The latter point Zach only discovers after accidentally opening one…
Enjoyable mayhem ensues, with enough monsters to satisfy the most scare-crazy child. Highlights include the abominable snowman, a werewolf, zombies, a very nasty levitating poodle, an army of psychopathic garden gnomes, a giant preying-mantis, and a deeply unsettling ventriloquist puppet which come to life (as ventriloquist puppets have been known to do throughout cinema and television history, in everything from Dead of Night to classic Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang).
Clearly director Rob Letterman enjoyed Gremlins as a child, because that is what Goosebumps frequently resembles, especially in one kitchen set scene involving the afore-mentioned garden gnomes. It also has that high-concept 1980s movie feel, with resourceful teenagers dispensing the nasties in all manner of ingenious ways. There is a surprising amount of wit to spare between CGI monster set pieces, especially in one scene involving a policeman and his over-zealous rookie, and another nice running gag about Stephen King. Performances are all decent (with Jack Black surprisingly restrained), and Danny Elfman contributes a suitable score akin to what he frequently writes for Tim Burton.
There are some rough edges, and plot logic goes out of the window as soon as the first monster appears, but quite honestly it hardly matters. Goosebumps is an agreeably deranged bit of scary monster fun.