While the end result might not be particularly impressive, you have to hand it to the folks behind Goosebumps, the film version of R.L. Stine's best-selling book series that everyone read as a kid. Director Rob Letterman (Gulliver's Travels) and writer Darren Lemke (Turbo) not only manage to capture a sense of nostalgia, but they also solve what must've been one of the biggest problems of the adaptation process. With 62 initial novels and more than 100 spin-offs published, choosing which tale to bring to the screen can't have been easy. Their solution? Bundle together as many as they can, then wrap them all up in a big meta-textual package.
Indeed, Goosebumps both follows the formula set out on the page — i.e. a few kids find themselves in a scary situation — while still providing plenty of twists. The latter come in a couple of forms, including inserting Stine himself into the mix. Given that each of the printed volumes followed different characters, he's the series mainstay, after all. Here, played by Jack Black, he's a seemingly eccentric neighbour with a daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush) he doesn't let wander far, and a bookshelf filled with locked manuscripts.
When high-schooler Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves in next door to Stine with his widowed vice principal mother (Amy Ryan), he's more interested in Hannah than her father. In fact, he has no idea who Stine is, though he gets curious when the author tells him to stay away. After hearing screams, Zach thinks something sinister is afoot and is determined to investigate. With his new pal Champ (Ryan Lee) in tow, he breaks into Stine's house, opens some of his books and accidentally unleashes their spooky contents onto the world.
Enter Slappy the living dummy, the abominable snowman, a giant mantis, a pink blob, an invisible boy and a whole host of garden gnomes to terrorise Zach and the gang. Yes, Goosebumps goes for the more is more approach to their monsters. Unfortunately, here, it doesn't really pan out. Fans of the novels might be pleased that their favourite foes make their way into the movie; they're less likely to be impressed with the scattershot and over-the-top way in which that's achieved.
If it feels like the filmmakers have thrown everything they can at the screen, that's because they have. It makes for a jam-packed 103 minutes, with no time wasted jumping from one creepy encounter to the next. However it also makes for a chaotic array of set pieces and little else. Some scenes hit the mark, including the kitchen-set gnome attack. But they do so at the expense of fleshing out the characters, establishing a mood of anything other than silliness, and thoughtfully exploring themes of loss and inner turmoil. When Black hamming it up is among the feature's few highlights — doing double duty as the voice of Slappy, and saddled with some terrible one-liners as a result — then you know you're in trouble. Rereading the books would be a much more enjoyable alternative.