|'By the end of the film Letterman and writer Darren Lemke fall into the Marvel trap of throwing literally everything the film has at a final battle. All semblance of charm dissipates.'|
R.L. Stine's Goosebumps novels are slight stories you might remember from your youth, each with a good central idea - many filtered through ages of Horror lore - adapted for a teenage market and setting. How to convert that to the screen? The resulting production must simultaneously capture the creepiness of some of Stine's tales, whilst remaining slight enough to capture the charm of the source material.
It is possible to find that tone. Joe Dante's 2009 film, The Hole, manages to be supremely creepy, whilst presenting a story that has innocent charm and appeals to the tween market. In this setting, however, director Rob Letterman never finds the balance, despite the presence of a good framing device. By the end of the film Letterman and writer Darren Lemke fall into the Marvel trap of throwing literally everything the film has at a final battle. All semblance of charm dissipates.
The framing device though is a great invention to get us rolling, although the depiction of that too hints at the film's problems. Having set up Zach (Dylan Minnette) as our protagonist, the film follows many a teen movie by placing an attractive girl (Odeya Rush's Hannah) next door to his new house with a cranky father (Jack Black) and an obvious mystery, which is solved when Black is revealed as R. L. Stine himself. Stine's Goosebumps books then become both plot and deus ex machina; his creations can come to life and led by ventriloquist dummy Slappy (also Black) attempt to take over the town.
The problem with that cute working together of Stine's stories, which guarantee that the filmmakers aren't reliant on just one single, slightly flimsy monster-of-the-week plot to follow, is that it takes what feels like an age to setup. We're well past the half hour mark once all of that has been explained to us, Letterman spending the time on both the lore of the film and the anonymous trio at its centre (Ryan Lee, as Champ, completes them). If you remember the Goosebumps books, the protagonists were never really the point. You can't get away with that in a two hour film, but the director appears to try any way, without ever giving us a singular monster alternative (even Slappy is swallowed by the ensemble).
There's an entertaining middle period, once Slappy and a handful of his fellow monsters have been released, but things begin to fall down noticeably once the gribblys converge. Apart from the odd moment of entertainment when the focus shifts (the wolfman in the supermarket is good) Goosebumps becomes a throwaway mess of villains who never seem threatening enough to scare and rarely have enough to do to justify their collected presence.