Goosebumps

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Goosebumps

Rated: PG / Runtime: 1h 43m

Goosebumps, based on creepy children’s books and a campy ‘90s TV show whose spooky twists attracted the censorship ire of the BBC, unleashes all the monsters of your childhood in a self-referential, self-loathing disaster. Directed by Rob Letterman, the creative voice behind such critical smashes as Gulliver’s Travels and Monsters vs. Aliens (a film that holds the prestigious distinction of being the first theatrical screening I ever fell asleep in), the troubling Goosebumps hates itself, horror, and women in equal part.

Zach (played by anthropomorphic American Eagle ad Dylan Minnette) and his mom (a criminally underused Amy Ryan) move into a new house in the fictional town of Madison, Delaware, unknowingly next to reclusive horror writer R.L. Stine (Jack Black) and his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush).

Of course, the two neighboring kids develop a crush. The chemistry between Zach and Hannah rivals that between the lead in a Nicholas Sparks novels with the lead in a completely different Nicholas Sparks novel. While the underwritten characters are primarily to blame, the direction doesn’t do their teenage butterflies any favors; before the final half hour, the pair’s conversations take place almost completely via the clinical shot-reverse shot of a Law & Order interrogation.

Apparent sociopath R.L. Stine (whom I’m surprised lent his name and image to this film’s hostile depiction) quickly and angrily sequesters his daughter in one of the least sexist scenes of the film, leading Zach and his unbearable comic relief Champ (Ryan Lee in a thankless role) to attempt a rescue. This goes awry, and the intruding boys unleash all of Stine’s literary creations onto the town from some magic manuscripts. Now the kids and Stine have to suck them back into a book.

But not a terrible story, right? Goofy and straight-forward, sure, but written by a pair of seasoned vets (Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski). The asinine drivel dripping out of the characters’ mouths, however, we have to blame on scripter Darren Lemke and whatever hand-to-mouth comedians they found to do the hacky punch-up work. The jokes swing far and wide, each with a different voice. Sub-Crypt Keeper groaners stream from characters moments after they deliver zingers about Instagram. It’s like their writers room consisted of one 90-year old Catskills comedian and a gaggle of YouTube vloggers.

This garbage sitcom approach to writing also applies to its characters None of the stock three matter aside from fulfilling their duties as Comedic Relief Nerd Sidekick, Squinty White Boy Lead, and Girl. They don’t converse like humans, but exist to keep the plot moving. They’re logistical characters, ticking off boxes right next to camera equipment and lighting rigs.

The meaningless plot doesn’t exactly afford them any opportunity for growth, either. The one aspect we see as different from the featureless block of marble pretending to be a protagonist (he’ll walk into school with his mom now) makes absolutely no sense. A teen magically dissipates some conjured monsters and now he’s no longer ashamed to be seen with his mom? It’s a hokey, meaningless beat lifted from a movie that probably earned it. Champ, the nerdy stereotype that should’ve died out decades ago, overcomes his fear to save a pretty girl whose name nobody knows and whose boyfriend ran off. He’s rewarded, like these perverted fantasy sidekicks always are, with a kiss. Nice Guys like him deserve it, after all, right? We never see that girl again.

Every female character exists for the pleasures of a male character. Amy Ryan, playing a new vice-principal whose husband recently died, just sort of mills around and preens on Zach while buffeting the affections of a nameless coach played by Ken Marino. Marino has a knack for awkward anti-humor, but within the context of the characters, his advances are nothing but creepy. Zach’s aunt, played by the very funny Jillian Bell, is a boy-crazy professional bedazzler. This movie doesn’t even pass the low, low bar of the Bechdel Test. Bell and Ryan have maybe two conversations, both focusing either on Zach or Zach’s dead father. The only other female to female character interaction is one line: “Hi, I’m Hannah”.

My issues with Hannah require me spoiling the twist, a component that Black’s Stine declares as one of the three essential parts of a story. She, like the rest of the female characters, exists only as an object of desire and comfort. And the twist takes that literally. That’s right: like the monsters, Hannah has been written into existence to soothe the loneliness of a middle-aged misanthrope. The internal logic of all this gets fuzzy (What is her book about? Why write an unstuck-in-time sixteen-year old as your daughter?), but Zach is more bothered by the fact that she might get sucked back into a book before they can date, despite Hannah’s knowledge and acceptance of her fate as an imaginary creation. But it doesn’t matter what she wants, we’re not asked to care about that. We’re asked to be sad because a girl Zach likes gets sucked into a book.

But never fear! Rather than release this creepy teenage golem from the shackles of her creation, Stine rewrites her into existence in the final scene! Zach gets a fictional dream girl of his own while Stine never has to relinquish his power. Is she still stuck at sixteen? Or does this mean she ages now? Either version is troubling. On one hand, she remains trapped like a Twilight vampire, tortured by her own immortality. On the other, Stine has written out her entire life throughout old age until her death, which is more horrifying than any ghost or haunted ventriloquist dummy.

It’s not all terrible, though. Jack Black and Jillian Bell sell their parts well, the former with a tempered disdain and the latter with manic energy. Two police officers played by the absolutely hilarious Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons provide the funniest scene of the movie, even if the crux of the joke relies on Simons man-splaining to Lund’s enthusiastically incorrect trainee. There’s something gleefully irresponsible about telling kids not to trust incompetent cops and to take matters into their own hands.

Actually, maybe it IS all terrible.


During the course of the film, it’s revealed that R. L. Stine created these monsters to terrorize his neighbors because he feared and hated them after an isolated childhood. They aren’t his friends or his companions, but his angry weaponized id. This is one of the most unhealthy views of horror that I’ve ever heard. That’s a Tipper Gore attitude coming from, and possibly sanctioned by, one of the most prolific modern horror writers. Hey kids, do you enjoy these spooky stories? Relate with an outsider sensibility or maybe just have a good time using your imagination to explore interesting thematic content through monsters? Well you’re bad and you should feel bad. These creations are evil, created through a hatred of humanity. If I was a little girl that enjoyed horror, I’d think this movie hated my very essence.


Jacob Oller is an Oklahoma City film critic and writer. Find more of his work at http://www.shouldiwatchreviews.com or

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