When I was a kid I was kind of a chicken. It wasn’t so bad, being a chicken.
Sure, plenty of things scared me but I had a secret: I liked being scared, found it thrilling in fact. I was the kid who huddled and hid behind the corner in my hallway so I could sneak a peak while my parents watched Alien in the living room. Terrified, but absolutely entranced by that terror all the same. I always had a plan for when things got to be too much.
If the aforementioned Alien pushed me too far, I could just dart back into my room (I did). If the bits and pieces of A Nightmare On Elm Street I caught while hiding under the kitchen table proved to be too scary I could always just run and hide in the pantry (I did), and if the story around the campfire got a little bit too intense or touched on something that really turned my belly yellow then I could just pretend I had to go pee. I did that a lot. The other Boy Scouts probably thought I had a condition or something.
What I’m getting at here is that Goosebumps was absolutely perfect for me for a number of reasons:
- The protagonists, like me, were often fraidy-cats.
- It was scary, sure, but it wasn’t that scary. Nobody’s getting chestburst in these things.
- The protagonists almost always won. They faced their fears and beat them. This was massive for me.
- Walking around carrying a Goosebumps book made me feel cool, like I was brave for reading them. This was even bigger, really.
I’ve had a real fondness for the series since I was about six years old and first saw Slappy the Dummy staring ominously down at me from a Scholastic Book Fair shelf and it’s never really waned. The series and the accompanying tv show have always been a happy place for me. When the 2015 film by Rob Letterman was announced, with Jack Black in the lead role no less, I wasn’t thrilled, frankly. I was ready for a cash-grab piece of nostalgia bait, a cheap glossy product designed to take advantage of the fact that people who were kids when the Goosebumps books and tv show came around were now having kids of their own. Thankfully, it wasn’t. What could have been a lame, banal exercise in keeping a brand alive turned out to be a pretty smart horror comedy with an awful lot of heart, some great young performances, and a stellar, hammy performance from the often-great-frequently-grating Jack Black.
The second film, however, lacks some of the charm and energy that the first one seemed to so effortlessly pull off. This isn’t to say that Ari Sandel (The DUFF) hasn’t made a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable family film, but what he’s made doesn’t have near as much of the crackle of magic that the first film did and the script, humor, and scares are not nearly as well executed. I generally think that comparing a sequel to the first film is somewhat unfair but considering how close the two hew to one another, I feel like it’d be dishonest for me not to.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has much the same premise as the first film, which isn’t something I can really fault a Goosebumps movie for doing, considering how many of the all-time classics were spread out over several entries with very similar premises. The Night Of The Living Dummy has many, many sequels and most of them can be summed up as “Damn, this dummy and his family are real bastards” and I was gleefully along for the ride every time. That may have had something to do with me being like, 8, but hey, if the formula isn’t broken then don’t fix it.
However, this film ends up feeling more like a thin imitation of the first, lacking much of the emotional depth the first one achieves. I know most folks aren’t coming to a Goosebumps movie expecting a lot of depth and emotional resonance but I do honestly believe the first one pulls that off in the way that the classic Amblin films were able to. This one… less so.
Haunted Halloween, like the first movie, centers around Slappy being freed from one of Stine’s manuscripts and proceeding to unleash an endless parade of monsters to accomplish his goals. In the first film Slappy’s seeks revenge on his “father”, Stine (who he feels has abandoned him) by unleashing the monsters from Stine’s notoriously large oeuvre. In the second film, Slappy is searching for the mother and family he never had by using a combination of magic and electricity to bring Halloween to life. You can see the throughline here pretty clearly, I think. The real Goosebumps is the feeling of abandonment we gained along the way.
The first film successfully tugged on my heartstrings by organically conveying its varying themes of accepting others, accepting yourself, and of being able to let go and in Haunted Halloween, while many of the same ideas are on the menu, they’re delivered to the table undercooked.
I realize that there’s a good chance that I expect more from my Goosebumps than you, and definitely your children, might. None of my quibbles are to say that the film isn’t a satisfying, spooky adventure that will assuredly (forgive me for this) give your kids goosebumps and maybe trick them into consuming a moral, even if that moral is a little fuzzier than the more mature themes in the first film. In lieu of emotional heft, the film has a dizzyingly large number of monsters at play. It is, after all, Halloween come to life and that means The Haunted Mask en masse. Decorations, costumes, and even a gigantic spider made of balloons all terrorize the small town and the animation quality and effects work on display throughout are usually quite good.
This a kid-friendly spookshow that subscribes to the more-is-more school of horror and I have to say that for the most part it works quite well. The film is paced quickly with action setpieces moving to scary setpieces moving to comedy bits in the bat of an eyelash. The three leads all do a perfectly fine job with the relatively thin material put in front of them and the frenetic action is memorable if a bit chaotic. It sacrifices some of the much-appreciated character beats of the first film, with the characters seeming more like thin archetypes than fully realized kids, but Goosebumps has historically never really been about character depth. That was for Fear Street, thank you very much. (Speaking of which, who wants to hear my pitch for a sleazy PG-13 slasher Fear Street adaptation? Call me.)
I caught an early screening of the film that allowed those in attendance to bring their kids and I can report that my 7-year-old Goosebumps-loving-daughter absolutely adored it. While I may feel that the scares are less effective here than in the 2015 film, my daughter gleefully jumped in her seat and gasped at all the right moments and so did the other kids in attendance, so it’s workin’ for its primary audience and you can’t fault it for that. There are some absolutely delightful cameos, a few great comedic moments that I won’t spoil, and a number of loving nods to both the book series and to horror in general. Notably, there’s an extended Halloween 3: The Season Of The Witch reference that I’m sure will at least elicit a knowing grin from the more “mature” members of the Goosebumps viewing audience this October.
While Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween lacks some of the charm of the first and doesn’t work as well for me on the whole, it’s still a rare family-friendly film that you won’t want to pull your hair out while watching. All this is to say that you could do a lot worse when it comes to kid-friendly horror this fall. This movie is going to make some kids out there feel the same way I did lugging around my dogeared Goosebumps books back in 1997. That’s reason enough for me to give this one a middling version of the ol’ Humanstein seal of approval despite feeling like this one’s the serviceable-but-underwhelming Haunted Mask II to the first film’s Haunted Mask.
(Seriously, call me about that Fear Street adaptation.)