Going into Goosebumps, the feature film “adaptation” of R.L. Stine’s classic series of kid-friendly horror books, I expected the scariest aspect of the movie to be the people attached to it (the last time star Jack Black and director Rob Letterman collaborated we got the cinematic blunder Gulliver’s Travels, which was such a painful movie experience that I’m surprised the blu-ray doesn’t come bundled with morphine). But not only is Goosebumps packed with some delicious ghoulish terror, but its actually one hell of a fun ride – even if a bit bumpy at times.

Darren Lemke’s script cleverly doesn’t attempt to adapt just one of Stine’s 62 monstrous novels but rather takes the meta approach and depicts Black as the author himself, now a recluse hiding in the anonymity of small town suburbia in Madison, Delaware. But this fictionalized version is prickly and shouty and overprotective of his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) to the point of creepiness. This raises the hackles of ex-city boy/new neighbour Zach (Dylan Minnette) who ropes in weirdo new/only pal Champ (Ryan Lee) to break into his neighbour’s house and try to rescue the cute Hannah from her curmudgeonly pop.

But when the would-be heroes discover a bookcase full of locked original manuscripts for Stine’s novels, they soon discover the source of the father/daughter’s paranoia: once opened, these manuscripts unleash into the real world the very monsters that Stone wrote about inside of them. And of course the books get opened. Before you know it, a cackling patchwork army of ghouls, giant bugs, werewolves, abominable snowmen, garden gnomes (don’t be fooled: they’re deadly little bastards) and more, led by the hilariously sinister Slappy the killer ventriloquist dummy, are running amok through the town, forcing Stine to team up with the kids to try and put all the monsters back into the books they sprang from before everyone and everything is destroyed.

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Getting that task done has the film run at a breakneck pace which is certainly thrilling, and sure to keep the young’uns thoroughly engaged, but it also means that the story just runs roughshod over most of the characters. Personal development is rare, with some of the earlier character beats – such as the fact that Zach is supposedly withdrawn after the death of his father the previous year – get handled as narrative convenient throwaways and not much more.

As Zach, Minnette may be solid in the action beats, but he is also often in danger of moving again – this time it would be to Bland-HeroVille (Population: him). Luckily his co-stars turn the charm dials up to 11, with Black providing his vintage expressive performance, this time tempered (mostly unsuccessfully) through the guise of being a supposedly low-key author. Odeya Rush (last seen in The Giver) also turns in a plucky, instantly likeable performance as a girl who just wants to live a normal life, and shares some natural chemistry with Minnette. But it’s chompy Ryan Lee as Champ who steals a lot of the show as the scaredy-cat suit-wearing goofball who just wants to score with the ladies. Admittedly, his character is egregiously superfluous to the story and some of the gags he’s saddled with do faceplant, but for the most part he nails his comedic beats with aplomb.

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Helping out on the blatantly obvious comic relief front is Jillian Bell as Zach’s bedazzling aunt Lorraine, while Amy Ryan has her fair share of moments as Zach’s widower mom, whose attempts at becoming the cool new vice-principal of Madison don’t quite go as planned.

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Backing those easily affable showings are the monsters themselves (fans of the books should have fun trying to identify them all), brought to life wonderfully by some impressive CGI. While there is a demonic poodle that almost appears to be a homage to the practical horror effects of horror-comedy classic Fright Night (which is actually a great tonal comparison for Goosebumps), the monsters are mainly digital which does lend them a slightly cartoonish air, but director Letterman still manages to elicit some decent scares. The star of the creepy show though is the dummy Slappy (also voiced by Black), whose cackling monologues – always timed perfectly to some ominous lighting changes – are a hoot. Danny Elfman’s rambunctious score also adds tonnes of fantastic atmosphere to proceedings – which is the exact opposite of the inoffensive, but completely lackluster 3D effects.

But even with the bungling of that extra visual dimension, Goosebumps is still a riot, as it blends Lemke’s madcap plot with plenty of laughs and just enough horror to occasionally rankle some nerves. It may not be perfect – or near as nightmare-inducing as Stine’s original texts, except perhaps for the younger cinemagoers – but with Letterman striking a great balance of gags and gasps, Goosebumps ends up a proper four-quadrant adventure flick that is a rollicking, infectiously fun time for not just fans of Stine’s books but also the entire family.

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Last Updated: October 28, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions – but very little sleep – I’ve been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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