The “Goosebumps” writer (and TV series creator) was willing to strip-mine horror formulas and flirt with time-and-“Twilight Zone” proven set-ups to give coddled kids a chance to beg mommy to leave the lights on all night. You know, because otherwise the monsters, ghosts, ghouls and the occasional killer clown or venal ventriloquist dummy might get them.
So it’s a delight to report that the new “Goosebumps” movie is pretty much the perfect scary movie for kids. A lot of jolts, a lot of laughs, a dose of “adults just don’t GET it” and a little facing one’s fears, this one bubbles out of the ooze of low expectations and manages to be, on several levels, a hoot.
And, like the TV series, Stine himself — or a version of him — plays a part.
Cute teen Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his widowed mom (Amy Ryan) to Madison, Delaware. He’s shy and his mom’s a vice principal, so forget about fitting in. The nerdy Champ (Ryan Lee) is his only instant friend.
Then, there’s the girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush). She’s sarcastic, confident, flirtatious, maybe a little reckless. And home-schooled. If only her dad, Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) wasn’t such a pill.
“You STAY AWAY from my daughter. You stay away from me!”
That would work, if Zach didn’t hear the occasional blood-curdling teen scream coming from next door. The goofball cops are no help. Is Hannah in danger?
Maybe. Maybe not. But sneaking into her house, Zach and Champ stumble across locked “Goosebumps” manuscripts. And cracking one open lets all Hell break loose.
A clever touch — having Shivers, actually the famous writer R.L. Stine as interpreted by Jack Black — guard these books and their magical powers to become real. Black gives Stine a brittle, nervous, prissy edge.
And the first book opened is the one about the ventriloquist dummy come to demonic life, “Night of the Living Dummy.” Slappy (also voiced by Black) threatens to open all the other books, with their zombies, invisible boys, aliens and what-not, and unleash them on the town.
“ALL of your children are coming out to play!”
When they do, the now-outed Mr. Shivers/Stine and the kids try to wrestle his creations back into their books.
Director Rob Letterman (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) and screenwriter Darren Lemke (“Turbo”) are animation veterans, and keep the action and the gags coming, but cannot quite manage to keep the energy from flagging as the effects grow bigger and bigger.
But the “Jumanji/Zathura” approach to the terror was the right tone to take, and the throw-away lines and gags pay dividends, time and again.
Champ was “born with the gift of fear,” and shrieks like a pre-teen girl at every new menace.
“Don’t JUDGE me!”
Best of all is Black, the kid-friendliest comic of his generation, all wild-eyed and put-out, selling the special effects, not overreaching for laughs.
The frights are nothing adults or horror-crazed teens will recoil from. This is PG-mild. But if you’ve raised your kids on a steady diet of Disney/Nickelodeon and PBS pablum, don’t be surprised at that request for a bigger night-light. And that you lock those garden gnomes in the backyard shed. Otherwise, you know, R.L. Stine and his minions will get them.
MPAA Rating:PG for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor
Cast: Dylan Minnette, Jack Black, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee
Credits: Directed by Rob Letterman, script by Max Joseph, script by Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer and Richard Silverman. A Sony Animation/Sony Tristar release.
Running time: 1:43