Thursday, October 29, 2015

Goosebumps the Movie's Meta Monster Story

Ryan Lee, Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, and Odeya Rush in Goosebumps.

This review contains some spoilers for Goosebumps.

Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) is hardly thrilled when his recently widowed mother Gale (Amy Ryan) decides she’s moving their two-person family from New York to Madison, Delaware for a job at the local high school. The town is small but charming. Obviously, big city teenager Zach is bored in the ‘burbs – that is, until he meets Hannah (Odeya Rush), the cute girl next door, and her surly and mysterious father (Jack Black). As it turns out, Dad is prolific children’s horror novelist R. L. Stine, famous for penning the Goosebumps stories beloved by real-life 90s kids across the globe. It also so happens that Stine has a dark secret: his fictional monsters are real, brought to life by his supernaturally vivid imagination. To control the herd, Stine keeps his original manuscripts locked in his study until one night, Zach and awkward tag-along buddy, Champ (this is his real name; yes they address how ridiculous that is) accidentally set the monsters loose on the town. Hannah, Zach, Champ and R. L. Stine team up to minimize destruction of the town and put the monsters back where they belong, on paper. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

There’s no sugar coating it, the plot Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the screenwriters behind The People vs. Larry Flynt, 1996) dreamed up is ridiculous. It’s terrible, but it’s a means to an end: the end being somehow including a 72-year-old, real-life author as a character in a monster film. It resists logic. It leads to some entirely cringe-worthy scenes where Mynette is required to feign conviction as he tells people that the monsters are real and they all need to work together to stop them. Conveniently, however, it also allows all of of R. L. Stine’s iconic creations to appear onscreen without omitting anyone’s favourite. Furthermore, the film seems to be aware of its own absurdity and doesn’t shy away from it. The scenes between the embarrassing expository lines are entertaining and the characters, both young and old, are engaging and relatable. With a praying mantis that tears the roof off the school gym and a legion of dressed-up teenagers running en masse through the hallways trying to escape zombies, the film has a campy, nostalgic feel to it that works – not only for its target audience of preteens looking forward to the mystery of high school life, but also for those adults in the audience that are too proud to admit they might miss their teen years more than they thought.

Jack Black with author R.L. Stine. (Photo by Hopper Stone)
Any teen actor that doesn't make me want to tear my own face off is a shining beacon of hope and talent in my eyes and Minnette and Rush were exceptional as the romantic leads, Zach and Hannah. Despite allegedly being a New Yorker, Zach Cooper is less “Harmony Korine’s Kids” and more “boy-next-door” endearing; he’s friends with his mother, he indulges his weird aunt when she wants to stay in and bedazzle hats with him, and he’s kind to the nerdy kid who sits next to him on the first day of school. Minnette, good looking and with great comedic timing, sells the character completely. Odeya Rush’s Hannah is just earnest enough to prevent her from careening off into “manic pixie dream girl” territory. I’m excited to see what the two stars do next. Ryan Lee’s performance as (Super 8, and more recently Trophy Wife) as Champ, the budding fedora-wearing nice-guy nerd (who saves Halston Sage from a werewolf, ultimately feeding that that most heinous of teen movie myths to a new generation: that being a good guy will earn you a hot girl who’s way out of your league) was also well-executed; despite my disdain for awkward sidekick characters as a whole, Lee makes Champ tolerable and surprisingly funny. The adults in Goosebumps’s supporting cast were also excellent. Amy Ryan was excellent (The Office) as Zach’s mom and high school vice principal, Gale, but Jillian Bell as dorky spinster Aunt Lorraine really stole the show. Watching her talk Zach’s ear off one night about all the hypothetical reasons her last date never texted her back (they both ordered the chicken teriyaki; it was “fate”) was one of my favourite part of the film. I know film and television these days is super saturated with the “quirky spinster” character but if any of them deserve a spin-off, it’s Aunt Lorraine.

Strangely, it was the top-billed actor, Jack Black, that didn’t work for me. While I’m glad to see Black in a role other than “Jack Black” for a change, his take on R. L. Stine was a little too much of a caricature. Granted, I can’t blame Jack Black entirely for this: the screenplay and the character itself both kind of fail him in Goosebumps. Portraying a real person is challenging enough but Goosebumps tosses in an extra curveball by rejecting any source material on R. L. Stine other than the trademark black shirt and glasses. “RL" R.L. (I couldn’t resist) is married in his 70s, with an adult son, and probably doesn’t have a study full of monsters in books. The screenplay, by Darren Lemke, retcons Stine’s actual life and gives him a strange back story about growing up lonely and unliked (spoiler alert: daughter Hannah is also a figment of his powerful imagination). The film tasks Black with trying to pull emotional responses from the audience at a couple key moments but the reach is strained; it’s hard to feel sympathy for a cardboard cut-out standing in for a real man.

Despite being conceptually bizarre, Goosebumps ultimately entertained. For those of you with actual children, not just sitting by yourself in the corner as an adult woman, the film is not as scary as you might expect. One kid behind me, probably about 12 years old, loudly exclaimed “NOPE” when Murder the Clown (from Stine’s Nightmare on Clown Street) appeared on screen but, really, I think that reaction’s pretty standard for humans of any age. Kids and adults alike will undoubtedly get a kick out of Goosebumps if they’re in the market for some Hallowe’en inspired fun. One word of advice, however: if given the option, skip the 3D screening. If there’s any movie that could have been obnoxious about its use of 3D technology it’s this one, but the opportunity was largely squandered. Save your money, and your self-esteem – those glasses are dumb looking.

Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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