A slapdash monster mash.
There are the makings of a spooky, kid-friendly classic buried somewhere within Ari Sandel’s Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. It is a film that features, among its many monsters, a werewolf, a yeti, a cackling ventriloquist dummy, a trio of truly terrifying witch creatures (with eerie Mysterio-like globe heads), a gigantic killer spider, and an army of killer gummi bears (that can mash their bodies together into giant bear monsters before swallowing children whole). There are ghosts, goblins, a headless horseman, and, of course, a flock of flying jack o’ lanterns. So eager is Goosebumps 2 to get to its spooktacular monster mash, that it regrettably hastens past such trivial cinematic necessities as establishing a rich mood in its own opening act. Acknowledging that it is a comedic film for younger kids, Goosebumps 2 still feels unduly impatient.
Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps feature film from 2015 featured a novel premise, originally conceived by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski: R.L. Stine, the original author of the Goosebumps kid novels, appears in the film to explain that his horror stories are literally contained in his books, and opening those books unleashes the monsters into the real world. The climax of that film featured Stine (played by Jack Black) writing the ending to the story as monsters tried to break in from outside. It was a fun meta-narrative about the relationship between an author and his own dark creations. Not terribly complex, of course, but clever.
In the follow-up, the tale is merely straightforward. Two 12-ish boys named Sonny (Jeremy Rae Taylor from Stephen King’s It) and Sam (Caleel Harris from Castle Rock) find a mysterious chest in an abandoned house. Inside is a book. When opened, the book manifests Slappy (voiced by Jack Black) the aforementioned living ventriloquist dummy, and villain from the previous film. Slappy explains that he can use magical animation powers to make the kids’ dreams come true, but that he is also driven by a lust for violence: Early in the proceedings, Slappy gleefully injures a student who dissed Sonny’s older sister Sarah (Madison Iseman). It won’t be long before Slappy, embittered by the kids’ eventual rejection, will walk into a drug store and bring all of the Halloween paraphernalia to life. This will be a prologue to a Halloween night wherein the entirety of the city’s spooky Halloween decorations will begin marauding in earnest.
There is a lot to admire about Goosebumps 2. The cast is dedicated and appealing. Taylor is a very natural actor, who shows a great deal of promise and he has great chemistry with Harris, a person who actually feels like a best friend, and not like an actor he met on set that morning. Iseman is a capable enough heroine, although her character’s drama feels deadeningly typical. Sonny and Sarah’s mother is played by Wendi McLendon-Covey, a hugely talented comedic actress and former Groundling who has previously been a highlight of middling comedies like Blended, Cuban Fury, and Think Like a Man Too. All of these actors lend the film a good deal of much-needed character.
But overall, Goosebumps 2’s actual personality feels slight. Its tone is jaunty, but it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny. The Halloween iconography is wonderfully employed – I was especially fond of the globe-headed witches and of a living pumpkin-headed scarecrow with glowing pumpkin guts inside its insidious maw – but it’s rarely actually, y’know, scary. Although Goosebumps 2 (like the first) openly discusses the power of horror stories and how they tend to operate as expressions of an author’s inner fears, one may never actually feel any fear while watching it.
Which may be the point. Stine’s Goosebumps novels were typically devoid of death and violence, never featured drugs or real-life depravity, and, at Stine’s own admission, never featured a moral or a lesson. And while this can make for a horror entertainment that is widely accessible to children, it does rob a film adaptation of some necessary edge; when the stakes are never high, the film is never scary. It’s fun in stretches, and the climax is capable and exciting, but Goosebumps 2 will let you turn the light out before going to bed.