If you were a child in the mid-90s then there’s a high chance you’ve read, or are at least familiar with, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps novels. Telling stories of kids in supernatural situations just scary enough that they’d make readers check under the bed before leaping in, but not so terrifying that they’d wet that same bed, the books have sold over 350 million copies. Those readers will probably get something extra from this zippy comedy-horror, but even if you’ve never opened a Goosebumps book there’s plenty to enjoy.
As so many horror movies do, Goosebumps opens with a newcomer to a small town, in this case Zach (Dylan Minette), who has moved to Madison, Delaware with his mum (Amy Ryan) to start a new, quieter life after the death of his dad. This identikit suburb shows some promise when Zach meets his neighbour, Hannah (Odeya Rush), who flirts over the fence, but their burgeoning romance is quashed by Hannah’s manic dad (Jack Black), who insists his daughter stay in the house at all times and clearly has some kind of strange secret. And so the story has its mystery: what is up with Hannah’s dad and what is going on in that house? The magical answer takes in bits of all the Goosebumps hits, like a demonic ventriloquist dummy, a werewolf, unstoppably violent garden gnomes and a really big bug.
There’s a real 80s texture to Goosebumps, bringing to mind films like Gremlins, Hocus Pocus, The Burbs or The Goonies; films that made you feel uneasy but comforted, that serve up mostly comedy with a shot of horror. Like most of those films, it’s a world where kids are reasonably sensible and adults are lunatics. All the younger actors are likeable and comically solid, particularly Ryan Lee as the obligatory nervy sidekick, but the film belongs to Black. He tears around in manic fury. It may be the most enjoyable he’s been since School of Rock.
It’s nice to see a movie that appreciates that kids enjoy being scared if they know the threat isn’t real. It’s a ghost train of a movie, where every fright is immediately followed by a laugh.