Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review: Goosebumps – Jack Black as R.L. Stine in witty adaptation

Chills thrills and scary fun in Rob Letterman's adaptation of classic long-running book series

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 10:00am

It’s been 20 years since the Goosebumps movie project began gestating, and young adult horror author R.L. Stine’s popular series couldn’t have hoped for a better  pay-off than this surprisingly witty big-screen adaptation. Even the old-fashioned aura of the stories – the original series ended in 1997 at book number 62 – finds an excellent balance between nostalgia and bracing self-reflection.

A metafiction peppered with sarcastic humour, the fantasy movie doesn’t only find a way to feature a large number of the Goosebumps monsters – including most from the early books – but also has the good sense to include Stine as a cranky character, played here with peculiar charm by Jack Black, whose last outing for director Rob Letterman resulted in the lacklustre Gulliver’s Travels (2010).  

The movie begins gloomily as teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves from New York to the quiet suburban town of Madison, Delaware after his father’s death. While his mother (Amy Ryan)  starts anew as the local high school’s vice-principal, the son is swiftly enchanted by his beautiful neighbour Hannah (Odeya Rush), the home-schooled daughter of an enigmatic recluse who turns out to be Stine.

In an early twist that separates this from other uninspired YA adaptations, the Goosebumps novellas and the monsters they anthologised are revealed to be Stine’s imaginary retribution for his own miserable childhood. Things soon take a turn for the manic when the creatures escape from the manuscripts with the help of Slappy the ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Black) and begin to wreak havoc in the real world.

While the titular creatures from The Abominable Snowman  of Pasadena and The Werewolf of Fever Swamp are brought to life in thrilling set pieces, it is to the credit of Darren Lemke’s knowing screenplay – from a story by Scott Alexander  and Larry Karaszewski, co-writers of Tim Burton’s  Ed Wood  and Big Eyes – that the supporting human characters regularly steal the spotlight from their supernatural counterparts.

From the requisite nerdy sidekick (Ryan Lee) and annoying aunt (Jillian Bell) to a pair of goofy police officers investigating the shenanigans (Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons), Goosebumps has enough playful designs to spread around its ostensibly generic ensemble. As Zach and co race to contain the wandering monsters, this horror comedy proves to be a scary good time throughout.

Goosebumps opens on October 22