Here's a scary story for you. Somewhere in Hollywood, a cabal of producers are forever zombie-ing up the corpses of long-dead licensed properties, ever hopeful that you will continue to throw your money at familiar trademarked characters even as they eat your brains. Sometimes, when a silver moon shines just so upon the re-animators, the results of such rites become about more than just rights — the holders and beneficiaries thereof. Sometimes, these Franken-movies — assembled from the dead meat of the pop past and given life by reckless jolts of nostalgia — lumber forth without being abominable. And in those rarest of cases, something plumps up inside these stitched-together entertainments, something we might call a soul.
That should be good news, right? Sure, for now — but that also guarantees they'll try again in the future.
That brings us to Goosebumps, Rob Letterman's bumptious comic celebration of the impossibly popular '90s kiddo fright novels written by R.L. Stine, also the mastermind behind the puppet TV show Eureeka's Castle, a host of film novelizations and find-your-fate adventure books, and the long-gone Scholastic magazine Bananas. The filmmakers, to their great credit, spend more than half the running time bending their studio tentpole release to the spirit of Stine rather than cramming Goosebumps into their template.
Even when going for scares, Stine's work has always been smart about its silly dumbness. It's sly, self-aware, jovial — an adjective he appended to his name on the covers of books such as 101 School Cafeteria Jokes. The man's an industry, with numbers on his side, and by that I don't mean just the tens of millions sold. I once paged through those 101 lunch jokes at a thrift store, and, seriously, a couple will make you laugh.
So, like a jovial E.L. James, Stine's somehow got a movie based on his bestsellers that often actually feels like his bestsellers. This Goosebumps, at its best, is the kind of savvy horror-adventure goof that twenty years from now will be ripe for its own rebooting. Like the books, or like some childproofed version of the movies Joe Dante used to make, the movie crams much of the creepshow history of the '50s through the '80s into an Acme-brand woodchipper and then blasts it all into your face.
But before the mayhem — which involves a hovering death poodle, a car-spearing praying mantis, and the best onscreen iteration yet of murderous garden gnomes — Goosebumps is patient and witty in its setup, even risking the odd moment of beauty. Dylan Minnette plays a high school hunk whose name kids will remember but you won't. Like so many protagonists in horror-flavored entertainment, he's struggling through after the loss of a family member, in this case his father. His mother (Amy Ryan), needing a change herself, moves him to small-town Delaware, where he is immediately smitten with teen neighbor Hannah (the compelling Odeya Rush), who peers creepily out from a darkened window. But she's quick and bright, ribbing him for his Beadazzled ballcap.
“This is a gift from my aunt,” explains an abashed Hunk Boy. She smiles, and each word of her response seems to pearl up from her mouth before her mind can parse it, surprising and amusing her: “It's actually a gift for me and everyone who gets to see you in it.”
Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens, Gulliver's Travels) allows most of his actors moments in which to find their pearls. (The supporting cast includes Timothy Simons, Ken Marino and Jillian Bell.) Especially in its superior first hour, Goosebumps has a loose comic rhythm at odds with what we see in effects-heavy would-be blockbuster junk like Pan. Jack Black quickly turns up as Hannah's mysterious father, warning Hunk Boy never to come near his home or daughter, but for once he resists going over the top, at first playing the heavy and then — in a meta twist that delighted me — an amusingly vain artist.
I'm being vague, here, because Goosebumps boasts twists I'm glad I had no idea about, going in. Sadly, though, the revelation of the biggest and riskiest is the movie's peak, building to some uproarious mocking of Stine himself, and too much of the movie that follows is given over to the usual CGI fantasy mishegoss: running from Monster A, running from Monster B, hatching a plan that's just crazy enough to work if only the heroes can buy enough time. Only one of these set pieces has any teeth, an extended kitchen attack from those gnomes that in its trapped-floor climax one-ups Gremlins, its obvious inspiration, all without edging out of a PG rating. (One nice touch: The evil ventriloquist's-dummy is an actual puppet, not pixels.)
Kids in the theater around me found more to relish than I did in the climactic tumult. But they seemed as absorbed and amused as I was by the opening reels, the tingle of romance, the mystery of Hannah's father, and the vision of an abandoned amusement park in the woods near Hunk Boy's home, just the place for him to cozy up to Hannah on a viny Ferris wheel whose spokes and gondolas reach out just over the tree line. The hundreds of bulbs lining it still work, of course, and it glows in the high branches like the tree-cities of Endor. Both those kids and I understood that by movie's end this fantastic contraption would be sent crashing through the forest, but what a pleasant surprise that, at first, we and the characters got to linger there, smitten and unhurried.