When the monstrous creations of Goosebumps author R. L. Stine (Jack Black) escape the confines of the magic books that act as their prisons, only Stine and a motley crew of teenagers can stop the rampage.
It's scary how easily supernatural comedy can go wrong. For every Ghostbusters there seems to be a dozen films like R.I.P.D. — neither funny nor terrifying enough to make an impact. Happily, Goosebumps gets it just right. It’s consistently arch and knowing from the off, and while the scares won’t wake you up at three in the morning drenched in sweat, there are enough smartly manufactured jumps to keep things interesting.
The supernatural smorgasbord offers up killer gnomes, hungry yeti and a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy.
It helps to have solid source material, in this case R. L. Stine’s collection of spooky tales for teens and tweens. Rather than adapting a single book, director Rob Letterman and screenwriter Darren Lemke (working from an idea by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) bet everything on Jack Black, placing his incarnation of Stine at the heart of an adventure in which the myriad monsters from all those luridly titled books come to life and wreak havoc on a small town.
The supernatural smorgasbord offers up killer gnomes (from Revenge Of The Lawn Gnomes), hungry yeti (The Abominable Snowman Of Pasadena) and the principal villain of the piece, a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy called Slappy (from Night Of The Living Dummy and voiced by Black). The one-damn-undead-thing-after-another onslaught works a treat, constantly posing the film’s heroes new challenges and, crucially, supplying a fresh stream of gags.
Letterman and Black last worked together on 2010’s Gulliver’s Travels, but fear not: this time their partnership really works. Dialling back his usual mania, Black is a coiled spring of sarcasm as the tenacious R. L. battling his own worst mistakes. The decision to deploy Stine as a character is a masterstroke, leading to a succession of gloriously meta moments — most notably a rant about the success of a rival author, one “Steve” King.
But for all this, Black isn’t really the lead — that honour instead goes to the winning Dylan Minnette as Zach Cooper. Minnette demonstrates the charm of a young Tom Hanks, playing a kid who’s just moved to the area with his mother (an excellent Amy Ryan) and who is recovering from the death of his father. And this is the film’s most surprising element: it tackles death, loss and the nature of grieving with a deft hand, while never forgetting the pleasures to be had from a creepy puppet with a Napoleon complex.
This modern riff on Monster Squad is a very pleasant surprise, and so ’80s in spirit that it’s a shock one of the villains isn’t a giant Rubik’s Cube.